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Athens 2004

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August 29, 2004 2:30 pm

Athens games heralded as success

By MIKE PRATER

Gannett News Service

ATHENS, Greece - They opened as the Games of Controversy, for so many reasons, and they head into history as a 17-day celebration that helped Greece restore its ancient Olympic pride.

``I think our friends have delivered in Athens in a very splendid way,'' International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge declared Sunday, as the 2004 Summer Games ended.

In the first Summer Olympics since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, there were no major security issues, other than the $1.5 billion it took to maintain the safety of 10,500 athletes from a record 202 countries.

``The nice thing is, you saw it, but it wasn't overwhelming,'' American soccer icon and gold medalist Mia Hamm said.

The pre-Olympic construction crisis wasn't an issue. Some sidewalks may have gone unfinished, and you could find wayward construction equipment scattered throughout the city where the modern Olympics started in 1896, but competition venues received gold-medal reviews.

Once ticket sales got going, the Athens Organizing Committee reported reaching its goal of 3.4 million tickets sold. With the help of massive crowds inside Olympic Stadium for nine nights of track and field, the final number hit 3.5 million.

There were no glaring traffic issues, labor strikes or blackouts, all major concerns before the games. There was a minor earthquake, but no significant weather issues, unless it was the wind. Sailing was delayed because there was not enough wind, while too much wind caused rowing to be postponed.

It all seemed to go so smoothly, but at a cost. The Greeks are about to get stuck with the $8.5 billion price tag for running these games that were supposed to cost roughly $3 billion less than that.

The cost of winning is still under discussion for American Paul Hamm, who won all-around gold in men's gymnastics. Korea has protested, saying Yang Tae Young was given a wrong start value on his bars routine and should have been declared the winner. Everybody agreed, three judges were suspended, and nobody seemed to agree on anything after that.

The embarrassed International Gymnastics Federation, despite admitting its error, eventually asked Hamm to return his medal.

No chance of that happening, Hamm says.

The Greek version of Olympic scandal hit hometown heroes Kostas Kederis and Katerina Thanou before the games even started. The sprinters who won medals in Sydney failed to show up for their drug tests, apparently staged a motorcycle accident, ended up in the hospital and were called a disgrace by government officials. The Olympics are over, but the investigation continues.

By the time the games ended, officials had administered 3,000 drug tests and suspended 24 athletes.

So far, none have been Americans, who toned down their victory celebrations after being criticized for overdoing it in past Olympic Games.

``We wanted to win with class,'' said American Justin Gatlin, who leaves with the title as the world's fastest man after winning gold in the 100 meter.

The Americans were the superpower in Athens, winning the medals count with 35 golds and 103 overall. Russia took the silver with 92 medals, including 27 gold. China, which brings the 2008 Summer Games to Beijing, finished third with 63 medals and an impressive 32 golds.

U.S. women brought home gold in soccer, softball, basketball and beach volleyball. Men won gold in rowing and sailing.

Greco-Roman wrestler Rulon Gardner won bronze, after his historic gold-medal performance in Sydney, then placed his size-13 shoes on the mat and walked into a world of retirement.

Jeremy Wariner won two golds in track - the open 400 and the 4x400 relay - and answered a thousand questions about being white. After winning the relay, Wariner announced that he's turning pro and hiring former Olympic star Michael Johnson as his agent.

Michael Phelps won eight medals in the swimming pool - six golds and two bronze.

The men's basketball team, once considered a dream team, turned into a nightmare by losing to Puerto Rico, Lithuania and Spain. They beat Lithuania for the bronze medal.

Greek track star Fani Halkia provided the biggest hometown roar of the games by winning 400-meter hurdles, giving the locals something to cheer about after the Kederis/Thanou scandal.

The coolest moment: Men and women shot putters competing inside ancient Olympic Stadium in Olympia. About 15,000 people sat on a grassy hillside as athletes competed in the stadium for the first time in 1,611 years. American Kristin Heaston - the first competitor of the day - made history by becoming the first woman to ever compete on the sacred grounds that opened 2,780 years ago.

``These games have been remarkable in every aspect,'' Scherr said.

Not so fast. Four days after winning the women's shot put in Olympia, Russian Irina Korzhanenko failed a drug test and was stripped of her medal.

No wonder Rogge stopped short of calling these games the best ever.

``The Olympic Games is a competition between athletes,'' he said. ``It's not a competition between organizing committees.''

The Winter Games in Torino, Italy, are on the clock. They start in 530 days.

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COMMENTARY AND PERSPECTIVE

MIKE LOPRESTI | Gannett News Service

Olympics 2004 were games of education, enlightenment

More columns by this writer

IAN O'CONNOR | The (Westchester, N.Y.) Journal News

Biggest winner of 2004 Olympics: Greece

More columns by this writer

CHRISTINE BRENNAN | USA TODAY

Athens scores satisfying win

More columns by this writer

DAN BICKLEY | The Arizona Republic

Some U.S. women's teams put on best show in Athens

More columns by this writer

LYNN HENNING | The Detroit News

U.S. basketball team has gone from stars to targets

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BOB KRAVITZ | The Indianapolis Star

It was Black Friday for U.S.

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