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Greek fans revitalise Games
August 27, 2004
When Greece's Fani Halkia won gold in the Athens Olympic Stadium, the wall of sound which followed sounded like an earthquake.
"I felt totally numb," the 400 metres hurdler said. "The whole stadium seemed to be rocking, as if it was lifting away from the ground."
Few watching the athletics in Athens have ever experienced such an electrifying atmosphere, the thunderous cheering swirling around the 75,000-capacity venue before echoing back down off the stadium's spectacular canopied roof.
This was supposed to be a Games in crisis, with its heartbeat sport short of high-profile competitors and caught in the doldrums.
When reigning 200 metres champion Kostas Kenteris and 100 metres contender Katerina Thanou withdrew from the Games over a missed drugs test in farcical circumstances before the opening ceremony, it seemed as if Athens 2004, without its figureheads, would go down in history as the Games that everyone forgot.
Kenteris had been expected to light the flame at the spiritual home of the Olympics.
Well before the Games, athletics has been suffering from endemic problems.
A consultants' report presented to the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) on Thursday called for a weekly money list of track and field athletes' earnings in an attempt to give the sport a lift.
It also argued there should be a "heroes campaign" to try and sell the world's top athletes to a sceptical, badly informed public, particularly in the United States where their gold medallists walk down the street unrecognised.
Recent high-profile athletics drugs scandals have compounded the image problem, as did the triumphalist posturing of America's relay sprinters in Sydney four years ago and the petulant behaviour of John Drummond at last year's world championships.
Drummond lay on the track and refused to leave after being disqualified for a false start in the 100 heats.
But the Greek crowd at the Olympic stadium have refused to be cowed and refused to stay away, creating their own unique atmosphere along the way.
While the chant of "Hellas, Hellas!" has dominated, the spectators have also warmed to athletes from other nations.
They fell in love with Russian Yelena Isinbayeva as she blew them kisses. She rewarded them with a world record in the women's pole vault.
The men's 100 metres, meanwhile, won by American Justin Gatlin, featured five times under 10 seconds for the first time in history. The race was greeted with rapture, as was Moroccan Hicham El Guerrouj's classic victory in the 1,500.
Twice Olympic 1,500 metres champion Sebastian Coe, however, had a word of caution.
"Hicham El Guerrouj is arguably the best middle distance runner we have ever had. But I doubt whether there are too many kids in my kid's class that would be able to picture him or know anything about him.
"You wouldn't have said that 20 years ago about Carl Lewis."
The athletics fans at the Olympic stadium have misbehaved only once.
On Thursday, in support of Kenteris, sections of the crowd booed and whistled so loudly that the 200 metres final was delayed for five minutes before Shawn Crawford was allowed to lead America to a scintillating clean sweep, the first in the event for 20 years.
Crawford, while not condoning, responded with exemplary diplomacy. "I think I understood what they (the Greek spectators) were going through," he said.
"We are here at the birthplace of the Olympics and the defending champion is from Greece ... and he was not allowed to compete."
If the passion of the Greek crowd in Athens could be exported, athletics would surely blossom worldwide.
Crawford's eloquence was also a welcome change from the "I'm the man!" jingoism dominating the sport in recent seasons.
Only one man was delighted with Thursday's protests.
"It was the best thing I have heard in the past few years," said Kenteris, who thought the reaction vindicated him.
It did not.
It just reflected a passionate longing for heroes from some magically passionate fans.