I was watching the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Rio at the legendary Maracana stadium as the Greek athletes entered first with flag bearer Sofia Becatorou. I suddenly felt the need to stand at full attention in front of the TV.
By Constantinos P. Xinos and Alexander Kitroeff
There I was all alone in my home two feet in front of the television watching our athletes parade in front of thousands of spectators in Brazil. Similar to a slide show I got a vision of my father who ran the marathon for the first time in his life in the Pan-Hellenic games at the age of 37 and finished 7th with no prior formal training.
“I didn’t know how to pace myself,” he would tell me in a bitter voice, “I was just following the front pack and I heard someone say the finish line was only 3 kilometers away when I started passing other runners only to run out of real estate. If only I had known, if only there were another 10 kilometers I would have won.”
As the Greek athletes made their round waving to the massive crowd behind the Greek flag I saw my father parading alongside them and all of our people following. Right there, that moment, our whole existence in a flash I felt this heaviness in my chest and on my shoulders, something I’ve never ever experienced before.
As the games began it happened, a young unknown shooter from the city of Drama Anna Korakaki wins first a bronze medal in the 10-meter air pistol challenge and then a gold medal in the 25 meters. Anna is a member of a shooting club named Orion in Salonika but because of the distance and the travel expenses she had to settle for a makeshift range put together by her father and coach Tassos Korakakis on a mountain top near her home.
Wish my father was alive today to see it, those medals were for him and all the Greek people and the athletes like my father who suffered in the past and are suffering today some 50 years later. The more things change, the more they stay the same I guess.
When we hosted the Olympics in 2004 our athletes had funding, trainers and doctors but all of the support system fell apart in 2009 with the economic crisis and people are quick to point to the current realities of everyday life and the difficulties of millions struggling just to get by. Anna Korakaki didn’t ask for much though, all she needed was ammunition to practice but her repeated requests fell on deaf political ears and was left at the mercy of her strong family unit for financial help and support.
In Greece, athletic organizations such as PAOK, Olympiakos Panathinaikos, and AEK are not just about soccer and basketball but include other team sports and athletes who compete in track and field, weightlifting and boxing.
If one takes a closer view of Greek athletics and it’s historic past we see that Track and Field is the oldest sport and enjoys a great deal of respect because of its connections with Ancient Greece. When athletes of the Athens-based track and field club Panellinios, that was established in 1891 wanted to also play soccer, the club said they could not. They left and formed a club which is today’s Panathinaikos, which became a sports association engaged in track and field soccer and soon spread out to many other sports including basketball. Panathinaikos athletes were the backbone of the Greek national track and field team for decades, some them doing several sports. Kostas Tsiklitiras who was the soccer team’s goalkeeper won two silver medals at the London 1908 Games and a gold in bronze in Stockholm in 1912. In 1970 Panathinaikos pole vaulter Christos Papanicolaou set the world record at 5.49 meters or 18ft.
Over the years Greek governments and their sports authorities have been much better at talking the talk of how track and field sports connects the Greeks with their Ancient past, but the funding of amateur athletics has lagged behind. Private sponsorship was considered taboo for many decades. Track and field teams that were part of a big sports association such as Panathinaikos – that was especially committed to promoting all sports – could rely on funding thanks to the income that soccer and basketball brought in. The Panathinaikos track and field team won the domestic championship every year from 1955 to 1974.
When soccer and later basketball turned fully professional in Greece in the 1980s, the concept of a collaborative sports association weakened because of the growing costs of paying professional soccer and basketball players. Some funding continued, but the state picked up the slack back when Greece was staking a claim to host the Olympic Games. But after the Athens 2004 Games and especially after the financial crisis hit, both the trickle of funds from soccer and basketball and government support all dried up.
In 2013, Panathinaikos fans, the legendary “Gate 13” decided to become involved in the sports association that runs all sports aside from soccer and basketball, with a view of restoring Panathinaikos’ historic presence in those sports and also work towards promoting those sports among teenagers and children in Athens, at a time when physical education and exercise opportunities became greatly diminished during the crisis.
Thanks to a gigantic effort the track and field team was brought back from the brink of extinction and it is now slowly but steadily increasing its numbers, it is crawling up the rankings and is able to offer greater and greater opportunities to young athletes. At the top level Panathinaikos now has 13 men and 6 women who compete in domestic and international meetings. Long distance runners Kostas Koulaouzos – who won the Athens half-marathon – and Demos Magginas as well as sprinter Christina Marouda, among others, have had promising successes over the past months. The track and field team administrators are planning to increase the team’s budget from €12,300 last year to over €17,000 for the coming season – as long as they can raise the funds!
We need to help those like Anna Korakaki and champion diver Stefanos Paparounas who had to work at a nightclub so that he could make enough money for gas to go to practice.
Our athletes need our help today more than ever, and there are many clubs who need our support so please make a small donation to athletic clubs as:
so that our sons and daughters one day can stand in front of the tv during the opening ceremony of the Olympics and feel as proud as you and me of our rich heritage and the Greek flame that burns inside every single one if us.