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In an apartment in the northern Athens suburb of Maroussi, amateur runner Marios Kritikos stores his precious collection in a cardboard box on his nightstand. “I keep them all,” he says as he unfurls colored ribbons and displays the commemorative medals he’s earned from races.
For another man, in northwestern Athens, the same objects have a completely different meaning: They provide a much-needed economic boost during the crisis. His manufacturing firm in Menidi cuts, engraves and puts together medals and cups awarded in races all over Greece.
Not a week has gone by in the past four years without an order. “Our client list has grown quite significantly. We recently sent shipments to Edessa, Spetses, Agrinio and Hania,” says Giorgos Yiannoukos, one of the firm’s partners.
In 2005, some 800 Greeks took part in the Athens Classic Marathon, while this year more than 9,000 are expected to set off from starting line on November 8. A decade ago, Greece held no more than 50 events a year for amateur runners, but now, including mountain races, these surpass 300.
Running in Greece has become so popular in recent years that even professionals have been caught unawares. It has given rise to new professions, offset the losses of others and gradually changed the mentality of many in regard to sport.
Yiannoukos’s firm is a family-owned business that has always strived to keep up with changing demand. When it was started in 1964 by his father-in-law, it mainly produced souvenirs for the tourist market. Later, a large part of production was given over to promotional gifts including letter openers, name plaques and the like. “Our clients were municipal authorities, ministries, the police and the military,” says Yiannoukos. However, that market shrank with the crisis, so the firm moved into the production of medals and cups.
The medals awarded at major international events are normally made of copper and brass and the cost can come to above 2 euros per piece. The quality is significantly lower for local running events; there is so much demand that the material used for most races is Zamak, an alloy of zinc, aluminum, magnesium and copper.
The cost of production usually comes to a maximum of 0.80 euros a piece. In most races, medals are awarded just for participating and not only for winning.
“I’m particularly moved by this one,” says Kritikos, holding up his medal for the 2011 Athens Marathon, the first time he participated in the 42.2-kilometer race. “That same afternoon I was thinking where my next race would be.”
Kritikos began running on the encouragement of friends, and in a bid to shed a bit of weight. Today, at the age of 37, he works as a software engineer at a mutinational firm and has completed eight marathons in Greece and abroad, two mountain races on Olympus and one 12-hour race in Elefsina.
Not everyone could understand his passion at first. “The first summer I went to my wife’s village and ran in tights, the locals laughed at me,” he says. “Last year and this year, though, I saw a lot of people either running or walking in the same areas. We’re growing accustomed to the sight. It does not raise eyebrows as it once did.”
It was May 1978 when a group of amateur runners organized the first mass run in Greece, 20 kilometers starting at Aghios Cosmas on Athens’s southern coast. At the entrance to the open-air athletic center, on a metal sheet that had come unstuck from the entrance of some nightclub, the organizers had written: “Participating, not winning, is the reward. Running keeps us sharp and healthy.”
Three years later, that same group of friends created the Run for Health Association of Athens (SDYA). The members continued to organize their own races but also to support the Athens Marathon with their presence even at a time when participation was limited to a few dozen.
“It was the first association in the country that represented what was already popularly known in America as jogging,” says the president of the association, pensioner Eleni Bertsatou.
Several years later, Nikos Polias, a star of the Greek Marathon and an Athens Polytechnic graduate – also holder of seven firsts and a panhellenic record on the classic route – initiated the next step in the evolution of foot races by introducing to Greece the first electronic timing chips which were affixed to runners’ shoelaces.
“It was more of a game than a serious investment with a business plan. No one could have predicted developments. In 2002, when we were first starting out, we had one race, the Athens Marathon, and no idea what the next year would bring,” says Polias. His company is now responsible for timing 85 events a year. On some weekends he may have to set up his gear in four different cities. Another four companies have also emerged offering the same service.
A race only for women, the Ladies Run, has been a new addition to road racing in Greece the last couple of years.
Improving the quality of the races with precision timing and offering the athletes isotonic drinks, gifts and other memorabilia has also increased their operating costs and in the past few years, runners in Greece, like in many other parts of the world, are required to pay a participation fee.
The glut of events has Polias worried. He believes there are too many for the country’s population. “We have reached the point of saturation,” he says. “I think we will strike a balance and be left with the races that are more serious and ensure the runners’ safety and this will draw even more people.”
The growing popularity of running is particularly well illustrated in the numbers for the Athens Marathon, which is organized by SEGAS, Greece’s athletics federation. Enrollments this year (including the 5k and 10k races that are held on the same day) come to more than 40,000, from just 7,300 in 2007. In the period between 2011 and 2012, foreign travel agents reduced their reservations for runners from abroad because of the mass protests in Athens but this loss was offset by a spike in the number of Greeks who signed up, breaking all previous records.
An athletics event of this size is particularly lucrative. This year organizers estimated that, thanks to the arrival of runners and their friends and families from abroad, around 10 million euros will be spent at hotels, restaurants, archaeological sites and retail stores over the five-day period.
The market has also adapted to this new – for Greece at least – trend. In 2010, the executives of a major multinational sportswear company presented a program for forming student running teams at a meeting in Athens. Instead of 30- and 40-somethings, they were targeting the next generation, who did not yet have the purchasing power of their elders. The businessmen were interested in forming bonds of trust with young people and turning them into their future customer base.
Today, physiotherapy centers that cater to both professionals and amateurs are investing in new-technology equipment such as anti-gravity treadmills that reduce the strain of running, or cryotherapy machines.
Meanwhile, sportswear brands are sponsoring runners in training, as well as holding open training sessions. The Greek representative of a multinational firm producing GPS watches that calculate the distance covered by a runner tells Kathimerini that in the 2010-13 period he saw a 100 percent annual rise in sales.
How can Greeks’ sudden interest in running be explained? “I think the crisis played a big role. Running is a form of stress relief and low-maintenance. All you have to do is put on a pair of shorts and running shoes and go outside,” says physical therapist Giorgos Psaroyiannis, a veteran runner himself. Last year he treated more than 1,000 runners, compared to a decade ago when he barely had 200.
ΟHe has noticed that most people start running in their 30s and while it starts as a hobby, many overdo it or make technical mistakes, often leading to injury. “I tell them that they need to have continuity. The aim is to run for as many years as we can,” says Psaroyiannis.
“What I see, however, are happy people, who aren’t thinking about their problems. They’re eager, even though some of them may be unemployed or facing serious financial difficulties.”
Another factor that has played a role in the sudden popularity of running is that it came to Greece from abroad at a considerable delay. In 2006, a multinational corporation with a presence in Greece asked Polias to train its staff. “Every year, the parent company would decide in which races its employees would participate. But because they didn’t have any training, they would often suffer injuries,” says the former champion who today coaches more than 10 such teams.
Runner Kritikos created a similar group last year, starting with an e-mail sent to 300 colleagues to gauge the level of interest. “I was thrilled to get called in by the CEO, who told me that the company wanted to support the initiative, that it wanted people to be physically and mentally healthy because it improves their performance.” That year, 80 company employees took part in the Athens Marathon.
Kritikos trains three times a week. “I release all the energy that has built up from the tension and stress at work and come home feeling calm,” he says. Polias has also seen people change thanks to running.
“They come looking downhearted and browbeaten and they’ll leave feeling revived and in a good mood, even after a tough session.”
One recent afternoon at the Olympic Stadium, dozens of amateur runners pushed the extra few kilometers under the floodlights as they counted down the last two weeks to the Marathon. Polias watched them from a corner, stopwatch in hand.
“I want to believe that this is not a passing trend,” he says. “In running, nothing comes for free. You have to keep trying until you reach your goal. People who put running in their lives and are committed keep doing it because it is an unbelievable source of joy and well-being.”