Greeks rise to occasion after initial shock

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After two wonderful weeks in Athens it is hard to believe that these Games were supposed to be about unfinished stadiums, the spectre of terrorism, organisational chaos and soaring temperatures.

In the end the only criticism levelled at Athens, at least the only one that aside from the weather the Greeks could do absolutely nothing about, was that it wasn't Sydney, which will probably still be considered the benchmark for future Games.

These Games may have started with the tell-tale aroma of fresh paint that gave the impression that organisers had got things finished by the skin of their teeth but in every other respect they had what a successful Olympics needs.

There was high drama, controversy, wonderful sporting achievement, international incident and a smattering of no-hopers whose stories reminded the world, albeit briefly, that the Olympic spirit stretches far beyond the medal podium.

From the moment Greek sprinters Costas Kenteris and Katarina Thanou missed drug tests on the eve of the opening ceremony not to mention a turning on their motor bike the Games came alive. For the organisers it was the worst possible news the golden pair of Greek athletics faced expulsion from their home Olympics on the day of the opening ceremony.

That it didn't deal a hammer blow to Athens was largely down to the reaction of the Greek people.

Many condemned the sprinters and even those who didn't among them Greek conspiracy theorists who blamed the US for the plight of the athletes got on with enjoying a fantastic Games.

It may have been different if Greece had struggled to win medals or indeed if other countries had not had drug problems of their own. But even the subsequent positive test for the bronze medal-winning home weightlifter Leonidas Sampanis did not seem to affect public opinion, even if it forced the Greek post office to rethink plans to issue, overnight, stamps bearing the images of all home medallists.

Tougher doping rules ensured that drugs were always going to be an issue in Athens, but with bans now running beyond 20 athletes, including two gold medal winners, even that has been given a positive spin as the anti-dopers view Athens as something of a watershed.

A watershed in part because unlike Ben Johnson's disgrace in 1988, doping could not overshadow the sporting stories told here, whether tragic or triumphant.

There was no greater hard luck story than Paula Radcliffe's collapse in the marathon. There were other favourites who failed to win gold but none in such a desperately lonely way. But Radcliffe was not alone in her anguish. What of Britain's James Goddard? He finished fourth in the men's 200m backstroke but was briefly bumped up to third after a disqualification only to be told 20 minutes later that he was back to fourth because the paperwork had been filled out incorrectly and the initial result stood.

Spare a thought too for Australian cyclist Shane Kelly who set a new Olympic record in the 1km time trial but did not even win a medal as his standard was broken by no fewer than three riders in the next 10 minutes.

But then there were the uplifting moments. Four years ago Nick Skelton was told by doctors that he would never compete again after breaking his neck, but he was in Athens and briefly led the show-jumping competition. US wrestler Rulon Gardener had a similar story. After winning gold in Sydney he lost a toe to hypothermia, but he was back and even managed a bronze.

The Iraqi football team, who narrowly missed out on a medal, also fall into this category. Their success was well deserved, its hijacking by George Bush's re-election campaign an unfortunate side effect.

The scale of the Olympics is such that by the end of the second week the achievements of the first are only remembered by the statisticians. So it is worth noting that Britain's first medal came courtesy of the divers Leon Taylor and Peter Waterfield; that Michael Phelps won six gold medals in the pool and let's not forget the badminton pair of Nathan Robertson and Gail Emms the Torville and Dean of the sport who came so close to beating China and taking gold.

The first week also witnessed the worst outbreak of anti-Americanism when the US basketball team played Greece. The boos and jeers were deafening whenever one of the US players collected the ball. This was partly attributed to the Iraq conflict, partly to a particularly vicious minority who follow Greek basketball. But it was not an isolated incident even if some US journalists had expected more of a reaction against the Bush administration.

But that was not the story of these Games. Instead, the Greeks should be basking in the glory of their magnificent achievement. Yes there were poorly attended events, but the stadiums were fantastic, the security unobtrusive and the Greeks wonderful hosts. All they have to do now is work out how to foot the (£7bn) bill.

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