ATHENS, Greece -- As soon as the men's 200-meter race was introduced over the loudspeaker at Olympic Stadium, the crowd of 75,000 let loose an avalanche of jeers and boos.
"Hellas, Kenteris! ... Hellas, Kenteris!" they chanted. The Greeks had come to see their Olympic champion defend his title, not another American show.
Greek sprinter Kostas Kenteris, who won gold in the 200 meters in Sydney, missed a drug test, then was involved in a suspicious motorcycle accident the day before Opening Ceremonies and ultimately withdrew from the Games. So when the stadium's big screen cameras flashed on U.S. sprinter Bernard Williams -- who was given a warning by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency for testing positive for marijuana in June -- the noise grew louder.
He did nothing but smile.
"It was like 'Showtime at the Apollo,' " said Williams, an amateur comedian. "I was waiting for the Sandman to come out."
The runners in the far lanes couldn't hear the starter above the din. Four-time Olympian Frank Fredricks stepped out of his blocks in lane 8 and pleaded for silence. Then, Stephane Buckland of Mauritius false started in lane 7.
After several minutes, the crowd finally calmed down, and the race got under way four minutes late. But instead of being treated to a show, it got a polite slice of American history.
Shawn Crawford, Williams and Justin Gatlin finished first, second and third, respectively, becoming the sixth set of American men to sweep the 200-meter medals in Olympic history. Together with Gatlin's gold and Maurice Greene's bronze in the 100, and a U.S. sweep in the 400, the U.S. claimed eight of nine possible medals in men's sprinting. The U.S. track team has won 18 medals so far, just two shy of its total from Sydney.
"It's significant to me because we brought our top three guys in the 200 here to compete at the Olympic Games and we're able to go home with the gold, silver and the bronze," Crawford said. "It shows that we're the top three 200-meter runners in the world. That's an accomplishment to me for the American team."
And they managed not to offend anyone in the process.
U.S. coach George Williams told the entire track team before the Games to "respect your family, yourself and the American flag" if anyone won a medal. He didn't have to say anything to Williams, who helped earn the Americans a bad reputation as show-boaters when he and his 4x100 relay teammates won gold and got a little carried away with their flag waving in Sydney.
"I've had my fun in 2000 and I could never equal that," Williams said. "But I had made a lot of people angry. And it's not fun when you're out there and you're making people angry at the same time. ... I tried to celebrate and bring something to track and field and it cost me [grief for] four years."
After kneeling in a circle of prayer, the trio took pillow-case sized versions of the Star Spangled Banner and olive wreath crowns from fans -- "Three Greek guys in the audience threw it to me and asked me for five Euros," Gatlin said. "I was like, 'I have no pockets.' " -- and a standard Olympic victory trot before heading off the field for interviews.
The subdued celebration -- relatively speaking, of course -- had been slightly delayed until the final results were sorted out. Running in lane 5, Gatlin had watched his chance for double gold fly by on his left as they rounded the turn and Crawford sped down the straightaway en route to a personal-best time of 19.79 seconds.
"I was like, once I get on this straight I'm going to run it like it's a 100-meter dash," Crawford said.
Crawford gave Gatlin, his training partner, a heads up before the race. "Shawn told me -- and Shawn doesn't lie -- he said, 'I'm going 19.7. Are you going to be with me?' I was like, 'I'll be there if I can,' " Gatlin recalled.
The silver came down to Gatlin, who was running his eighth race in five days, and Williams, who had gotten off to the best start of the trio. The pair was neck and neck until the final few meters, when Williams pulled away from the 100-meter champ.
"I just ran all the way through," Williams said. "I was just tunnel vision."
Exhausted, Gatlin laid down on the track while Williams looked up at the scoreboard to see he had set a personal best, as well, and beat Gatlin by two one-hundredths of a second.
"I'm just running on [fumes] right now. I'm running on heart," Gatlin said. "I'm going to get a little rest and come back strong."
Obviously, the race didn't turn out as well for everyone. Portugal's Francis Obikwelu, one of the favorites heading into the race, said he too was tired from running the 100 earlier in the week. Germany's 22-year-old Tobias Unger, who along with Gatlin were the youngest runners in the race, was rattled by the delay and noted the Americans' calm demeanor.
"They are very cool," Unger said. "Before the start I think they were nervous, too, but they don't show this. That's the thing that I will learn."
U.S. sprinters as role models. Go figure.
While the men were able to dispel the American stereotype, if only for a night, they weren't able to escape from under the cloud of drug scandal. Since four days before the Games, an Olympic-record 22 athletes have either tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs or have refused to take the test. None of them was an American.
Williams said he had learned his lesson, one that was highlighted by the crowd's lust for Kenteris.
"For me not to think about that would be out of order," he said. "I've learned from my mistakes. Mistakes are there to learn from, not to do over and over again."
Gatlin also tested positive -- for a prescription amphetimine during the 2001 U.S. junior chamionships -- and had his two-year ban lifted by the International Association of Athletics Federations in July 2002 under the condition that a second violation would lead to a lifetime ban. He has since crusaded to keep the sport clean.
"Our responsibility is to make track and field a better sport," Gatlin said. "That's what we did today, especially at home."