For Greek Olympians, Austerity Has Been Costly

Just 12 years after the Athens Games, Greek Olympians have had to find alternate ways to fund their training for—and even their travel to—Rio.

by David Cox
Aug 15 2016, 8:07pm

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

On Monday, Greece won its third medal of the 2016 Summer Olympics when Eleftherios Petrounias took gold on the rings. Already, that marks an improvement over the 2012 Games, where Greece earned just two medals; in 2008, they won four.

Such disappointing results would have been hard to fathom a decade ago, after Greece's 16-medal performance at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Basking in the glow of those Games, lavishly funded and surrounded by gleaming state-of-the-art facilities, the country seemed to be on the brink of a sustained run of international success. Medalists and medal contenders received large sponsorship packages, and bonuses were good.

But as soon as the curtain went down on Athens 2004, ominous signs emerged. Their Olympics had been the most expensive in history at that point, costing the equivalent of $10 billion dollars by today's rates, nearly $8 billion of which was to be footed by taxpayers. Just days after the closing ceremony, Greek politicians warned the European Union that the debt would be far worse than expected, adding to existing national debts of $187 billion. A year later, Greece was placed under fiscal monitoring by the European Commission.

Things only got worse. When budgeting for the Games, Greek officials had banked on post-Olympic tourism funding at least part of the deficit, but with prices escalating, many tourists opted instead for cheaper locations in Eastern Europe. Following the global financial crisis of 2008, austerity and budget cuts saw the money available for funding sport trickle to an absolute minimum.

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Vlasios Maras, a 33-year-old gymnast also competing in the men's individual events, is in his fourth Olympic Games. Maras was once a two-time world champion on the horizontal bar—back in the days when Greece had facilities that could rival the best in the world. Now he has to settle for being among the also-rans, but there's little he can do.

"The worst problem is that our training equipment is old, almost 15 years old," he told VICE Sports. "It's dangerous as it's falling apart and it means we don't have the preparation to be able to compete with the best countries. Gymnastics is a sport where it's the minor details which make you a champion, and we don't have the right preparation. All the latest equipment is built in accordance with the new rules. I train with equipment which is years out of date and so in competitions I have to adjust and change all my techniques. It makes it incredibly hard."

In some ways, Maras is one of the lucky ones. As a famous gymnast, he was able to obtain sponsorship to fund his training for Rio. With little financial support from the federation, many of his colleagues did not have the resources even to qualify.

"The government provided some money to support the athletes who had reached the Olympics," he said. "But only once they'd qualified. Getting there is incredibly hard. We can't go to as many competitions as we'd like before big events like the European or World Championships and we don't get any medical or physio support like some other nations.

"The financial crisis has affected every sport in Greece. For gymnastics, the money the federation receives from the government is 50 percent less than a decade ago. For other sports, it's run out altogether."

Financial muscle often plays a defining role in determining Olympic medal positions, and many Greek athletes are frustrated by a lack of resources that has left them languishing behind their rivals. Pole vaulter Nikoleta Kyriakopoulou won bronze at the World Championships in Beijing last summer, but after sustaining a serious injury earlier this year, she was unable to afford the best medical treatment, badly damaging her chances in Rio.

Nicholas Scarvelis had to rely on his alma mater UCLA's facilities to train as a member of the Greek Olympic team. Photo: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports.

"At my level, things like technical support and biomechanical analysis are hugely important and could have helped me go over five meters, but we can't afford that," Kyriakopoulou says. "And due to my injury I've missed most of the season. My monthly salary is around €650 to €750, while medical treatment and physiotherapy can add up to €200 a day, so I simply couldn't afford the best options."

Still, Kyriakopoulou says that she's in a far better position than the majority of Greek athletes.

"I've had good results in the past, which has got me sponsorship, and as an international athlete I can also earn prize money at Diamond League events," she says. "I'm also one of around 90 to 100 track and field athletes who the Greek federation supports each year with a salary and training camps, according to their level. But every year the federation receives less and less from the state and the money is not so much."

The pressure to support sporting careers has fallen on athletes' families, but given the country's economic situation, few can afford to do so.

"I know many instances of athletes who simply haven't been able to afford all the money it takes to maximize their potential," Kyriakopoulou says. "In the past, families were able to help out more, but when you have unemployment of 25 percent or more, and salary cuts of 50 percent, the society suffers."

Many athletes have been forced to work part-time to pursue their dreams of getting to Rio. Kristy Anagnostopoulou competes in the women's discus this week, but for the past four years she's combined training with working as a lifeguard. "I needed the money as we have no good training facilities in Greece even though I live in Athens," she says. "In order to prepare for the Olympics, I had to go to Cyprus."

Shot putter Nicholas Scarvelis is a Greek American who grew up and lives in California. He finds himself looking enviously at the luxury of the support provided by Team USA. Scarvelis has had to pay for his own plane tickets to both the Olympics and the European Championships earlier this year, and is waiting to be reimbursed.

When the balloons fell at the closing ceremonies of the 2004 Olympics, a great era for Greek sports ended too. Photo by NikoSilver/Public Domain.

"The support from the Greek federation is meager," he says. "I look at most of my competitors—the Americans, Germans, and Poles—and they don't seem to struggle in this way. The Greek Olympic Committee doesn't provide accreditation or funds for coaches, so I've had to travel to Rio alone. I get a small monthly allowance from them, but this is only enough to cover either rent or food in Los Angeles, not both. I've only been able to prepare for the Games in the past few months due to my relationship with the athletic training staff at UCLA, where I went to university, and they've given me access to weight rooms and physiotherapy."

But while Scarvelis and others have been able to reach Rio, the future for the next generation of Greek athletes looks increasingly bleak. "The juniors and young athletes simply can't afford to go to tournaments and this is a big problem," says table-tennis player Gionis Panagiotis. "Even the Olympic-level athletes usually have to pay their own expenses."

Scarvelis describes domestic competitions in Greece where events have nearly been forfeited because gas stations had run out of fuel, making travel impossible for some competitors. Even sports such as water polo, traditionally extremely popular among Greeks, are finding that the talent pool is drying up due to a lack of money.

"The players in the smaller teams and the younger ones are most affected," says Kiriakos Pontikeas, who plays for Greek team Olympiakos and won a bronze medal with the national side at last year's World Aquatics Championships. "I've always been one of the lucky ones as over the past seven years, whichever team I was competing for was doing OK financially and so the crisis hasn't affected me so much.

"Olympiakos is the biggest team in Greece and they manage their finances pretty well with the help of many sponsors. But if you're not at these big clubs then it's tough. I know many stories of players funding their own training through their parents or just quitting. I think more and more young athletes are just deciding to focus on education as they can't see any future in a sporting career."

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