Man behind judo’s newfound popularity in Greece hungry for sustained successes

Among the considerable number of ethnic Greeks who left the former Soviet Union was a family that relocated to Greece in 1993 and went on to popularize judo – until then a relatively unpopular sport here – and boost the country’s international competitive standing in the domain. A former judoka whose career ended prematurely because of injury, Nikos Iliadis has built a national team of medal winners and contenders at major international competitions. «He is one of the best coaches in the world. His work [for Greek judo] is priceless. From the day we entrusted him with the job, he has not stopped bringing in positive results,» said Vangelis Soufleris, head of the Greek judo federation. Iliadis, who studied economics in Georgia and physical education, specializing in wrestling and judo, in Moscow, managed to win various medals during his brief judo career, which ended abruptly in 1979 at the age of 22. His achievements meant little here, in a land where judo had not yet begun drawing aspiring judokas. Iliadis, and his family, which settled in Pelargos, a village in northern Greece, worked tobacco fields for a living. Their little spare time was usually spent teaching younger members of the family the finer aspects of judo. In 1995, Nikos Iliadis and his two brothers, Grigoris and Merabi, founded a judo club in Amynteo, a town in northwestern Greece. Initially, locals were hesitant about enrolling their children at the newly founded judo club, but vengeance arrived in 2000 when Nikos Iliadis was appointed head coach of Greece’s national judo team. Four years later, Ilias Iliadis, an adopted son, won a gold medal at the Athens Olympics, Greece’s first ever Olympic gold medal in the event. The number of youngsters who have since taken an active interest in judo have grown considerably, while judo clubs have proliferated in various parts of the country. His close associates describe Nikos Iliadis as ravenous for medals, or an individual whose early competitive retirement now drives him to push his athletes to the limits for success. The upcoming Beijing Olympics next summer stand as the next major challenge for Nikos Iliadis and his promising national team.