Absentees scramble for excuses

Responding to their conspicuous absences at the annual Greek sports press awards at a ceremony in Athens on Monday night, the national men’s soccer team, a Euro 2004 qualifier, and world champion javelinist Mirela Manjani, both prize winners at the ceremony, scrambled for excuses yesterday that, nevertheless, were short of convincing. The absences from the decades-old event, held by the Panhellenic Sports Press Association, PSAT, were accentuated by high-profile appearances. President Costis Stephanopoulos attended to hand out prizes to winners. Also there were two world-renowned athletes, both now retired, British rower Sir Steve Redgrave, winner of gold medals at the last five Olympic Game, and Ukrainian pole-vaulting legend Sergei Bubka, a six-time world champion – he won his last title in Athens in 1997 – to collect career achievement awards. Yesterday, the men’s national soccer team issued a statement that carried a public apology, noted that no implications were intended, and attributed the team’s absence to an underestimation of the ceremony’s importance by all team members. After the statement was issued, however, it became apparent that not all players were aware of its content. One squad member, Traianos Dellas, who plays club soccer with AS Roma in Italy’s Serie A, said he was informed of the event on the news. «I found out about what happened on the news and must say that it doesn’t concern me,» the Rome-based player told local radio station Supersport FM. «I believe that the absence by the internationals can be attributed to poor communication between officials, but, we, the players, are also to blame,» he added. Vassilis Gagatsis, the Greek soccer federation’s president, who arrived at the ceremony a half hour late – a delay he attributed to traffic congestion – took responsibility the next day for the Greek team’s failure to show up. «I’m obliged to ask forgiveness from the president, PSAT members, and all Greek fans for the player absences,» Gagatsis noted. «Obviously, they failed to realize the importance of the announcement of the national soccer team as the best team in 2003. Despite the fact that the Greek soccer federation was present at the event – I was delayed by half an hour due to unexpected traffic – I take responsibility and promise that there will be no such behavior by our internationals in the future,» he added. Commenting the day after the event, the ceremony’s other notable absentee, Manjani, the javelin thrower, said it was «a great honor» to be voted the year’s best female athlete by the sports press. She attributed her absence to an impromptu visit by IAAF anti-doping inspectors, for a surprise check on the Greek athlete as part of an overall effort by the International Association of Athletics Federations to wipe out drug usage in track and field. Manjani also added, however, that her failure to turn up may have been connected to bitterness over not having won the award in the past. «Perhaps there’s some bitterness there, too. I went through five years without being awarded,» said the athlete. Last year, Manjani was runner-up to 100-meter sprinter Katerina Thanou, who followed up a silver medal at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 with gold at last year’s Europeans. During yesterday’s radio interview, Manjani said she deserved to win last year’s top prize. The winner of the Best Male Athlete award, 400-meter hurdler Pericles Iakovakis, honored for his bronze medal at the world championships, was also absent from the ceremony, but his failure to show up was justified. Iakovakis, abroad for training, was represented by his brother, and he also provided a video-taped message that was projected at the ceremony.