Heavy burden of responsibility

And now, what are we to do without champion weightlifters, without those naive youngsters who destroyed their bodies so that the Greeks could exult in medals during Olympic Games? Whatever the result of a second round of tests, last Friday’s bombshell that 11 of the 13 men and women on the national team had been found with traces of illegal substances dissolved even the last wisps of illusion as to how medals are won and what these little disks of gold, silver and bronze mean in terms of the lives destroyed. With so many members of the team in trouble, Greece is most likely out of both the European Championships, which are being held in Italy from April 11-20, and the Beijing Olympics. But Friday’s news was much more than the announcement that we can expect little from this sport from now on: It also cast a cloud over the «Golden Era» of weightlifting in Greece. That era burst upon us unexpectedly at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 when Pyrros Dimas, an unknown young Greek from southern Albania, won gold. Soon the sport had become a national issue, with Dimas and another young immigrant, Kakhi Kakhiashvili from Georgia, winning gold medals in Atlanta and Sydney. In total, from Barcelona to Athens, coach Christos Iakovou guided, cajoled and comforted the team into bringing home five gold, five silver and two bronze Olympic medals. When Dimas ended his career, leaving his competition shoes on the altar where he had worshipped – the weightlifting platform in the Athens Games – many wept. Greece loved these likable young men who, in their majority, had been born outside the country and represented the strength of the Greek Diaspora and the will to do well, to bring back something for their new homeland, to win something for themselves. Showing similar hunger for victory, Greece embraced the athletes and the coach who kept creating new stars. Like a country of the defunct Eastern bloc, from which most of the weightlifters came, the state employed any athlete who did well, giving them positions in the armed forces. No one wanted to see that this desire for victory would have a dark side: The athletes had to bring back medals to pay off the state’s investment but also to secure their own futures. They were civil servants and their job was to be champions. Everyone suspected that the team’s performance – at least in part – was affected by the use of illegal substances. But we all wanted to believe the vehement protests by the coach and other officials that our young men (and women), unlike those of other countries, were clean. At the Athens Olympics, 24 athletes were found to have used illegal substances (or, like our sprinters Costas Kenteris and Katerina Thanou, had evaded inspection). Of these, 11 were weightlifters. Greek lifter Leonidas Sabanis was the first athlete to be stripped of a medal at those Games, losing his silver after being found with unacceptably high testosterone. With tearful oaths on the lives of his children, Sabanis claimed his innocence. His coach and the whole system in Greece rushed to his support, suggesting that Sabanis had been framed. The rest of us were too scared to look deeper, to discover whether Sabanis was the exception or the rule. We thankfully upheld the principle that whoever is not caught is not a cheat. Today the members of the golden generation have stepped down and their successors are the ones who will have to handle the weight of the charges. But responsibility lies not on the shoulders of the athletes but on those who exploited their ignorance and ambition in order to flatter a whole country and to build careers on the lifters’ backs. This is exploitation of the worst kind, because the athletes are not only in danger of being shamed and jailed, like Marion Jones, but also face the very real possibility of their health being destroyed. If our athletes did indeed make use of dangerous substances, we must thank those who caught them out. Because no one else would have protected these kids and those who might want to follow in their steps.

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