SPORTS

It was a year of highs and lows for Greek sports ahead of the Olympics

Two issues ought to preoccupy any serious-minded nation preparing to host the Olympic Games a year ahead of this major sporting event. One of these is the forthcoming Olympiad’s organization, and the other, the preparation of the host nation’s athletes as they strive to be in optimal shape for the Olympics. Should we take these criteria as the measure, Greece does not rank as a serious place. In 2003, a wide range of detrimental issues came into play to overshadow the sporting achievements of some athletes and teams. Among the many problems that shifted both precious attention and effort from the core issues was sports-related violence, a persistent problem that has been given extensive press coverage. As this newspaper has often argued, the real problem lies below the ugly surface of raging fans. The roots can be traced to administrative and governmental levels, where corrective measures have been repeatedly promised but not implemented. Another negative external factor in 2003 was the ailing financial state of federations and clubs. Instead of being solved during 2003, the widespread money woes in Greek sport have marched on throughout the year to seriously hamper the preparations of numerous athletes and teams. Amid the trouble, sources insist, funds did exist but were mismanaged by authorities. Consequently, we recently reached the point where the government’s men in charge of the sports portfolio advised cash-strapped federations to seek financial relief via bank loans. The proposal, of course, was swiftly rejected, but it has nevertheless left a lasting impression. Yet another letdown in Greek sports during 2003 was the non-participation, or series of last-minute withdrawals, by a considerable number of champion Greek athletes at major competitions, sometimes in crude fashion. The walkouts generated storms of protest, and rightfully so, both domestically and abroad. The Olympic, World and European 200-meter sprinter Costas Kenteris did not defend his world title at the World Championships in Paris last summer. Kenteris traveled to France but withdrew from the 200-meter event shortly before competition time. Other last-minute withdrawals at world-championship level included weightlifters Giorgos Tzelilis (69 kg), a silver medalist at the previous Worlds, and teammate Leonidas Sabanis (62 kg), a two-time Olympic silver medalist, who both flew to Vancouver, Canada, but pulled out. Team coach Christos Iakovou cited poor form. Other last-minute withdrawals at Vancouver included Christina Ioannidi, whom the Greek coach had rated as a medal contender ahead of the event. Doping was another cloud that hovered over Greek sports in 2003, not because of the number of Greek athletes who tested positive – the instances were few – but mainly because of the manner in which the issue was handled by SEGAS, the local governing body for track and field. Suspicions were handled awkwardly and the international spotlight, as a result, shone Greece’s way. It was not all gloomy, though. There were highlights as well, led by the national track and field team which was the country’s most dominant sporting category in international competition, particularly at the worlds. Athletes of all ages fared well, a firm indicator that the Greek team possesses depth for potential success similar to major triumphs achieved in recent years. As long as certain problems are overcome, such as the lack of proper, fully equipped stadiums, either in Athens or in peripheral regions, where facilities are currently run down. Despite the problems, especially for indoor competition – for the first time, the national men and women’s event was not held this year – the results were very impressive. The national team returned with a gold, silver and two bronze medals from the World Championships in Paris. Javelinist Mirela Manjani, recently voted the year’s best female athlete by the sports press, won Greece’s sole gold medal. Discus thrower Tasoula Kelesidou, who missed gold in Paris by a mere 18 centimeters, settled for silver. Teammate Katerina Voggoli, the reigning European champion, joined Kelesidou on the winners’ pedestal for bronze. All in all, Greece fielded three finalists in the women’s discus throw, which would have been unimaginable not long ago. The other triumph in Paris, an unanticipated one, came from Pericles Iakovakis, who ended third in the men’s 400-meter hurdles.