Greek national sporting heroes and doping suspects Kostas Kenteris and Ekaterini Thanou quit the Olympic Games yesterday morning after leaving an International Olympic Committee hearing into their missed drugs test.

Four hours later, after an emergency meeting of its executive board, the IOC decided not to take any action against the pair and handed their case to athletics' governing body, the IAAF.

An IOC statement said: "This decision means that (they) will not take part in the Athens 2004 Olympic Games and that the IOC is no longer the authority responsible for issuing potential sanctions related to the Athens Olympic Games."

They are likely to face a lengthy ban if the IAAF, as expected, find they have broken anti-doping regulations.

Kenteris, the Olympic 200m champion from the 2000 Games in Sydney, insisted he was innocent of any wrongdoing but said he was walking out on the Olympics in the interests of Greece. "I categorically declare that I was never informed or told to present myself for a doping control in the Olympic village," said the 31-year-old.

"During the last four years, I've passed more than 30 controls that never resulted in any problems. But in the interests of the country I am withdrawing from the Games and I also announce the end of my cooperation with my coach Christos Tzekos."

The duo's lawyer Michalis Dimitrakopoulos said that while the
procedure could have been drawn out even further, the duo had taken their decision in order to avoid the Olympics being further damaged by the controversy. 

"Considering that the media were preoccupied with this subject and that the procedure could drag on for three more days, the two athletes became aware that they should present themselves before the IOC commission and take this painful decision," said Dimitrakopoulos.

Kenteris and training partner Ekaterini Thanou, the women's 100m silver medallist from the 2000 Olympics, had been before the IOC Disciplinary Commission over missing a mandatory drugs test last Thursday.

"I apologise to the Greek people for not being able to participate in the Games. It's very difficult to withdraw, especially if they take place in one's own home country," Thanou said.

A Greek Olympic Committee spokesman had said earlier in the day Thanou had not been registered to take part in the 100m, although she could have been eligible for the women's 4x100m relay.

The Greek stars' controversial coach Christos Tzekos said after the meeting he accepted responsibility for the incident. owever, he refused to acknowledge any error on his part. "I don't feel I've made any errors. Nevertheless, I accept my responsibilities, whatever they are," said Tzekos, who claimed on Tuesday that he had been informed about the test several hours after it was meant to have taken place.

"I want to thank my two athletes for having had the courage to take the decision to withdraw," added Tzekos who served a two year ban in the late 1990s after he barred drug officials from testing his athletes, which included Thanou.

Kenteris and Thanou spent just 50 minutes before the IOC Disciplinary Commission which took place under tight security at an Athens hotel.

The inquiry into the incident had been delayed last week when both athletes were reportedly involved in a motorcycle crash just hours after they had missed the test and their injuries were said to be too serious for them to attend. Bizarrely, Kenteris was pictured lying in a hospital bed with his running shoes on.

The drug test had been scheduled the day before the Games opening ceremony when Kenteris had been expected to have the honour of lighting the Olympic flame. However, as the controversy raged, he was dropped.

A Greek sports official has said that Kenteris and Thanou panicked when being warned that they might undergo a drugs test in the athletes' village. The Greek Olympic Committee (HOC) subsequently excluded them from the country's Olympic team pending the IOC investigation into the matter.

Meanwhile, Greek prosecutors continued an investigation into the athletes' mysterious motorcyle accident. Dimitrakopoulos said the couple fell from the machine Kenteris was steering as they were rushing back to the athletes' village after discovering they were needed for the doping test last Thursday. But no accident was reported to police and no ambulance was called to the scene.

Filed by James Boylan