|Katerina Thanou (R) wins silver medal in the 100m at the 2000 Sydney Games [GALLO/GETTY]
Greek sprinters Costas Kenteris and Katerina Thanou were acquitted by an Athens appeals court on Tuesday of faking a motorcycle crash after missing a doping test on the eve of the 2004 Athens Olympics.
In a case that has dragged through the courts for nearly seven years, a panel of three judges issued the unanimous decision a day after a prosecutor recommended the two be acquitted on grounds of reasonable doubt in the crash.
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 that they immediately appealed.
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.
"This is a vindication that we have been talking about and fighting for, for seven years," said Maria Kevga, the lawyer for Thanou and Tzekos.
"I am proud as a Greek, because the decision demonstrates that the (athletes) were totally clean"
Kenteris' lawyer Michalis Dimitrakopoulos
"We always believed we would get it 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, said outside the courtroom.
"I am proud as a Greek, because the decision demonstrates that the (athletes) were totally clean."
Dimitrakopoulos said Kenteris was currently in the United States for personal reasons, and that he had spoken to him to notify him of the court decision.
"His feeling of emotion is beyond words," the lawyer said.
Stars in a horror show
Thanou and Kenteris, both medalists at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and Greece's top contenders for Olympic track medals during the Athens Games, had been accused of staging the crash on August 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 the IAAF.
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 said.
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, as it occurred after 11 p.m., whereas the IOC had summoned them for a doping test earlier in the day.
"For seven years we have been saying that Kenteris and Thanou had no problem whatsoever with the doping control. They did not evade the testing and they were never doped"
Coach Christos Tzekos
"The disciplinary violation was already there... 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 sporting decisions against the pair or attempt to change the official sporting record.
Tzekos, the coach, said that "we have been totally vindicated."
"For seven years we have been saying that Kenteris and Thanou had no problem whatsoever with the doping control. They did not evade the testing and they were never doped," he told reporters.
He said he had spoken to Thanou, who was "very, very, very happy. For sure, she's had a difficult time all these years."
Kenteris won the 200 meters at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, while Thanou finished second in the women's 100.
Neither of the sprinters were in court for the verdict.