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From heaven to hell, Greek sport in freefall

The Olympic Taekwondo stadium is seen behind a fence at Faliro complex in Athens in a file photo.

By Karolos Grohmann

Peeling paint flakes from Athens' Olympic park. Its entrances locked, this once sparkling edifice to sporting greatness lies rotting and largely unused -- maintenance costs too high for near-bankrupt Greece to operate.

The rate of decay and dilapidation in just eight years provides a visual clue to the Greek scenario, one as effective as any economist's report or politician's statement.

"Like heaven and hell,» Greek athletics federation chief Vassilis Sevastis told Reuters, comparing the heady days of 2004 when the Greeks staged the Olympics, with today.

Back then the country was crackling with optimism, pride and activity, as it rushed to deliver the multi-billion dollar Games organizers hoped would boost the country's growth and its modern image abroad.

The Greeks also spared no expense in preparing the foundations for a spectacular medal haul: 16 medals for a nation of just 10 million people.

These days, however, Greek athletes must be satisfied with a trickle of money as they prepare for this year's London Olympics, the debt crisis having dried up almost every revenue stream for sports, public or private.

"It reflects our reality. The country that gave birth to the notion of measure went completely over the top,» Sevastis said.

The 2004 Games that were to help shape a better future for Greece, turned into a noose as the billions of euros they cost only weighed on the country's subsequent debt crisis.

The country's coalition parties must tell the European Union later on Monday whether they accept the painful terms of a 130 billion euro (107 billion pounds) rescue, which Greece needs soon to avoid a chaotic debt default.

Having squandered the first three years of preparations, organisers were told in 2000 to speed up work or risk losing the Olympics. As a result, Greece embarked on a four-year building frenzy, with three shifts a day, that lasted up until a few days before the Olympics.

The country dug deep into taxpayers' pockets, dishing out an estimated $12 billion (7 billion pounds), more than double the initial projections.

"Obviously opportunities were lost,» Hellenic Olympic Committee (HOC) President Spyros Kapralos told Reuters.

"The success of the 2004 Olympics was lost when the lights went out at the end of the closing ceremony as our country had no plan to capitalise on their success."

A string of failed attempts to lease some of the facilities has only further highlighted Greece's inability to draw any benefits from hosting the world's greatest sports extravaganza.

Even the city's entire southern coastline to the port Piraeus, which had been sprinkled with Olympic venues, remains fenced off, prime real estate in a state of limbo for eight years.

"The dream of the Olympics that improved our image in the world during those 16 days has been lost, and it makes me sad,» Kapralos said.

"We had a foundation of good people in 2004, a dynamic which now is lost just like the venues that have become soulless buildings."

Kapralos still hopes Greece can return from London with six medals, but it is a challenge to see where they may win them as Greek sport continues to be shredded by the financial crisis.

The Greeks will march into the Olympic stadium first, as tradition dictates, with a team numbering around 75, or half the size of the team it sent to the Beijing Games in 2008 -- athletes' dreams another victim of boom-time profligacy.

Apart from massive budget cuts for all Greek sports federations, gone are all the state incentives for athletes to succeed on the world stage.

"The debt crisis now has affected both sport and the National Olympic Committee. In the previous quadrennium (2005-2008) the Greek state paid around 30 million in total towards the country's Olympic preparation,» said Kapralos, a former water polo player.

"We had agreed the same amount from the state (for 2009-2012). In 2010 and 2011 the amount we got from the Greek state was zero,» he said. «So our preparation has suffered."

The cuts essentially meant the end of any effort to send a competitive team to London, and even made it near impossible for athletes to qualify as travel budgets were slashed.

The gymnastics team were unable to travel to Tokyo for their Olympic qualifiers. The weightlifting, sailing and water polo teams experienced similar problems in recent months.

The HOC had to step up and foot the sailors' bill for the trip to Australia for the world championships while the International Olympic Committee is paying the preparation for 22 Greek athletes' and the country's women's water polo team, the 2011 world champions.

Greece's athletics competitors are left with ramshackle training facilities, their indoor training centre at the Olympic stadium leaks and athletes must use buckets to collect the water.

"It was a cataclysmic event on all levels for us,» Sevastis, who has seen annual state funding for athletics cut by more than 40 percent from 2010 to 2011, said of the 2004 Games.

"There were mistakes, there were excesses, yes, in the run-up to the Athens Games. Funding (for sport) was more than significant, sponsors came in.

"Nowadays our athletics pyramid has collapsed. Our future is neither bright nor hopeful. The passion of the athletes and their personal commitment is what keeps things afloat.» [Reuters]

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