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Appeals court acquits pair of Greek sprinters
Appeals court acquits Greek sprinters Thanou, Kenteris of faking accident before 2004 Olympics
By The Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece (AP) ' In a case that dragged on for nearly seven years, two Greek sprinters were acquitted by an appeals court Tuesday of faking a motorcycle crash after missing a doping test on the eve of the 2004 Athens Olympics.

A panel of three judges ruled unanimously a day after a prosecutor recommended that Costas Kenteris and Katerina Thanou be acquitted on grounds of reasonable doubt.

The two were found guilty of perjury in May over the scandal ' a major embarrassment to the Olympics' host nation ' and given suspended 31-month jail sentences.

The appeals court upheld the conviction of the athletes' coach, Christos Tzekos, on charges of possession and storage of illegal substances but acquitted him of a perjury charge relating to the motorcycle crash. The court reduced his initial sentence of 33 months in jail to 12 months, suspended for three years.

"I feel relieved and vindicated," Thanou said. "I had to wait for seven years, but I have learnt to wait."

Maria Kevga, the lawyer for Thanou and Tzekos, said she "always believed" there would be vindication in court.

Stating that they could not determine beyond reasonable doubt whether the crash had indeed taken place, the judges also acquitted seven state hospital doctors who treated the runners and two people who said they witnessed the alleged accident. They had been given suspended sentences of between six and 15 months.

"We demonstrated in court that there was no evidence to support that the accident was staged," Michalis Dimitrakopoulos, Kenteris' lawyer, told The Associated Press outside the courtroom. "I am proud as a Greek, because the decision demonstrates that the (athletes) were totally clean."

Kenteris won the 200 meters at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and Thanou finished second in the women's 100. Neither sprinter was in court for the verdict. Dimitrakopoulos said Kenteris was in the United States for personal reasons, and he told him of the court decision.

"His feeling of emotion is beyond words," the lawyer said.

Thanou and Kenteris, Greece's top contenders for Olympic track medals during the Athens Games, had been accused of staging the crash on Aug. 12, 2004, hours after missing a doping test before the opening of the Olympics.

The two spent several days in an Athens hospital saying they had been injured in the crash. Under pressure from the International Olympic Committee, they withdrew from the Olympics and both were subsequently suspended by track and field's ruling body.

"The IOC has no comment to make on a court decision," spokesman Mark Adams said Tuesday.

Thanou told state NET TV late Tuesday that she and Kenteris had been "set up" so as not to compete in the Athens Games. She said she never took drugs, despite approaches from unidentified dealers.

"I would never have endangered my health or my career to use anabolic steroids, especially as I had stood at the top of the podium more than four or five times," she said. "So I felt that I did not have to take something to constantly prove my worth."

The 36-year-old Thanou did not rule out returning to competition, but said she probably would not because of her age and the strain of training.

"I have no liking for mediocrity, I only love the top," she said.

Dimitrakopoulos said the trial demonstrated that the injuries Kenteris said he sustained in the crash were evident in X-rays and blood tests.

"They were medical facts, bodily harm from the accident, that could not have been fabricated by the athlete," he told the AP.

Dimitrakopoulos said the public had never been properly informed of the facts and insisted that the sprinters would have had no motive to stage the accident because it occurred after 11 p.m. and the IOC had summoned them for a doping test earlier in the day.

"They went to a hospital that was certified for the Olympics, so if the (doping) monitors wanted they could have taken blood and urine samples there. But they did not," he said.

The lawyer did not say whether they would challenge previous sports decisions against the pair or attempt to change the official sports record.

Tzekos said he said he had spoken to Thanou, who was "very, very, very happy. For sure, she's had a difficult time all these years."

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