SPORTS

Head Olympic coach expects record gold

When Athens won the right to stage the 2004 Olympics many questioned if there would be enough golden Greeks mounting the podium to justify their host status. Juan Antonio Samaranch, then International Olympic Committee (IOC) president, voiced concerns that a lack of top competitors might result in the homecoming Games failing to capture the imagination of the local crowd. Seven years on, those doubts have been banished. For the best part of a century the only time the Greek national anthem was heard at the Olympics was at the opening and closing ceremonies. Greece won a miserly three golds in track and field between the Athens 1896 revival and the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. A single bronze medal in Seoul in 1988 became a gold at Barcelona four years later, before an eight-medal haul at Atlanta. Then Greece took 150 athletes to Sydney in 2000 and returned with 14 medals. With four months to go, there is unprecedented optimism in the birthplace of the Olympics, which will be the smallest nation to host the Summer Games since Finland in 1952. The man charged with delivering medals is ex-high jumper and current head coach of the Greek Olympic team, Odysseas Papatollis. «We have a difficult mission… but I think we’ll do it,» he told Reuters. «I think we’ll get at least 20 medals. The host city almost always doubles their medal tally from previous Games and we are capable of doing the same.» Spain won 22 medals when Barcelona hosted the Games, up from just four at the previous Olympics. At the Seoul Games, hosts South Korea increased their haul to 33 after taking 19 in Los Angeles four years earlier. Former Papatollis protege and high jump medalist at Atlanta, Niki Bakoyianni, said today’s champions were riding a wave of public funding and sponsorship that was only a trickle a decade ago. «In theory the funding was always there, but in practice you could wait six months for a pair of shoes,» she said. Shoes are no longer a problem. Greece’s sports federations receive more than 13 million euros annually from the government, while a single sponsorship deal for the track-and-field team with a telecommunications company netted more than 2.5 million euros. Individual athletes are in demand for endorsements and sprint king Costas Kenteris even has a high-speed ferry named after him. Papatollis said a shift in attitude that came with winning the bid in 1997 had helped Greece’s sporting fortunes. «Our coaches shadowed the world’s best, saw them in action, learned new techniques and brought them home. We now have some of the best coaches in the world,» he said. The most effective, and controversial, of the new generation of trainers is Christos Tzekos. His stable of sprinters includes 100-meter European champion and Olympic silver medalist Katerina Thanou and Kenteris, holder of a unique treble of Olympic, world and European titles at 200 meters. Tzekos says he has fused the techniques of the former Soviet bloc with the American work ethic. «The good thing about Greece is that it’s in the middle of two different sports cultures. There is the Eastern bloc, which did a lot of research, and the US culture, which is a lot of training and has a lot to do with nutrition and dietitians. I combined this knowledge and made something new,» he said. After one year under the workaholic nutritionist, Kenteris went from a journeyman 400-meter runner to Olympic champion. Tzekos has been a target for the anti-doping lobby but he says the secret of his success is not steroids. He says the turning point came a decade ago in Florida when he met fellow Greek Christos Iakovou, the man who would later turn the national weightlifting team into world beaters. «Christos is one of the best strength and conditioning coaches in the world, he won the world championships, took world records and Olympics. We arrived at common conclusions over strength training,» said Tzekos. Between them they delivered more than half of Greece’s Sydney medal haul. The giant Iakovou and his stable of lifters know that they, more than anyone, will carry Greek expectations. But three-times Olympic champions Kakhi Khakiasvili and Pyrros Dimas are now 33 and 35 respectively. «They are not what they once were and if it were not for Athens they would have retired,» said Iakovou. Papatollis said Greek fans would be surprised. «Our athletics team won’t suddenly win eight medals, neither will the weightlifters get 10. The medals will come from judo, tae kwon do, sailing maybe, even basketball.» The inspirational performance of tae kwon do champion Michalis Moroutsos at the last Olympics spawned thousands of martial arts enthusiasts across Greece. Sailing seems certain to provide domestic winners with 470-class duo Sofia Bekatorou and Emilia Tsoulfa heavy favorites after World Cup success.