A 25-year-old sprinter from Hebron is defying major obstacles to fulfil his dreams of reaching the Olympics.
Thessaloniki, Greece – More than a decade after the 2004 Athens Olympics, many of the once-gleaming athletic venues lie unused and destroyed. And the pride that came with successfully hosting the Games has now turned to anger.
In fact, many believe that the Games contributed to Greece’s public debt, which resulted in six years of austerity policies and budget cuts across all areas, including professional sports.
For 31-year-old gymnast Vasiliki Millousi, the upcoming Rio Games will be her third.
In 2004, the Greek teams had doctors, proper training facilities and plenty of funding. Today, at the Olympic training hall in Athens, there is no doctor on the staff, the medicine cupboard is empty and the roof leaks when it rains.
Millousi decided to move to Thessaloniki, Greece’s second-largest city.
“Thessaloniki has a recently renovated gym, with new equipment that we got from the World Federation,” she says. “But the conditions in Greece are overall a deterrent for training at such a high level.”
“Ideal conditions for athletes exist in many countries but the best are in the United States, in Russia, and the UK, where there are medical units and coaching teams that help athletes prepare with a proper diet, training, recovery but also with psychological help,” adds Millousi, who has been training since she was five.
“And of course they get all this, not just two months ahead of the Olympics, but at least one or two years before. In Greece, we don’t even get the basics.”
But when Millousi is on the gymnastics beam, she forgets about all of that.
She is now training for the Rio Olympics.
“I’ve seen the good times, too,” Millousi says, talking about the conditions before the crisis hit. “When we didn’t lack a thing. But we’ve learned not to give up.”
The last time professional athletes received funding from the state to prepare for important athletic events was in 2009. Since then, they’ve been on their own.
But the Hellenic Olympic Committee did ask private companies to help athletes.
“A lot of Olympic athletes came to my office and told me that they wanted to quit because they felt that they didn’t have any help,” says Spyros Kapralos, the president of the Hellenic Olympic Committee.
“Their federations help them, of course, but the help doesn’t meet the need when someone is a professional athlete. They have to compete with athletes from all over the world, athletes who have great help from their countries.”
Kapralos says that 70 percent of the money available from the state for athletics is spent on administrative costs, such as the payroll of the Greek General Secretariat of Sports and of the different federations, so there is little money left to renovate stadiums.
“Parents are the real sponsors of their children,” Kapralos says.
When the Greek champion diver Stefanos Paparounas, 26, left Greece for Brazil last February, to participate in the World Championship, he knew he hadn’t trained properly.
Paparounas had to work at a nightclub while preparing for the Olympic Games.
“From all the fatigue, I got a meniscal tear because after working the night shift at a bar, I went straight to training at 9 in the morning, then got some sleep, then did my evening training, and then back to work,” Paparounas says.
“I didn’t have a choice because I didn’t even have money for gas and my personal expenses. After the knee injury, I stopped working. The federation is now covering my food expenses and I’m living at the athletes’ shelter, but if I gave you only food and housing would you be able to compete in the Olympics?”
There are also problems with the facilities. The national diving team hasn’t had its own diving centre since a springboard broke at the facility in Agios Kosmas in 2014.
That centre is one of the facilities that have recently been sold by the state to a private company in an effort to raise money to pay back the country’s debts. Included in the sale were the athletes’ dorms, which has left athletes such as Paparounas, who don’t have a house in Athens, homeless.
Paparounas has been training at the Olympic Stadium of Athens complex. But the boards there are the same ones that were installed for the 2004 Olympics. Experts suggest they should be changed at least every four years, and more regularly if they are used frequently.
Two years ago, Michail Nektarios Fafalis, Paparounas’ partner in the synchronised diving competition, fell and hit his back when a board broke during practice. Paparounas says that if he had been on a higher board it might have resulted in a much more serious injury.
But athletes aren’t even sure for how much longer they will have that pool. According to the agreement the current government made with its lenders, even the Olympic Stadium will be sold.
It was a different situation more than a decade ago.
The years between the 1996 and 2004 Games were a golden age for Greek Olympic athletes. For those who won medals, bonuses and sponsorships were good.
In 2008, after Greece was rocked with doping scandals, as a punitive measure the state decreased the number of people it would give bonuses to. Before this, anyone who was placed in eighth position or higher received an Olympic bonus. Afterwards, athletes needed to win a medal in order to benefit.
For Paparounas, it is probably too late. He has lost his patience with the situation. Today, like the 1.2 million unemployed in Greece, Paparounas is looking for a job. “Any job,” he says. But with youth unemployment at 60 percent, it has been difficult.
“Many Greeks believe that it’s something easy to be a professional athlete and they don’t want the government to spend money on sports,” Paparounas says. “But it’s not just diving that has problems; the synchronised swimmers are wearing diving suits to train because the pool is too cold and the gymnastics athletes have to wear sweaters in the winter because the stadium has no heating.”
Paparounas, currently Greece’s only diver, says he doesn’t know if he will be competing any more and he is afraid that there soon will be no Greek representation in diving. He worries that only the children of the country’s wealthiest will be able to become professional athletes.
“I’m 26 years old with a knee injury. I feel that the spark inside me is now gone. It’s really difficult because when you’re aiming at something, you have to be able to see the target,” he says.
Boccia paralympic gold medalist, Grigorios Polychronidis, 35, is in the final stages of preparation and will head to Rio on August 20.
Boccia is a precision ball sport for players with disabilities affecting their motor skills. Polychronidis uses an assistive device on top of his head to push a ball that is placed by his assistant on a ramp. He tells the assistant how to place the ramp and his goal is to send his balls closer to a white ball that is thrown first, while also pushing his opponent’s balls further from it.
Polychronidis was born with spinal muscular atrophy, which gives him minimal movement in his hands. When he completed college, he became an economist. But he wanted more, and in 2002 he started training in boccia. Two years later, he came sixth in the paralympics in his home town, Athens.
Like many Greek Olympic athletes, Polychronidis finds it difficult to find a suitable place to train. “It’s really hard to find an available stadium,” he says. “For example, now that I’m preparing for Rio and need a stadium for five hours daily, it’s hard to find one. Their schedules are all full with other teams.”
He says taking up a professional sport is a risk for both the coach and the athlete, as they don’t get paid until they win a medal.
Polychronidis says that the situation worsened for all athletes when the economic crisis struck Greece, but for paralympic athletes, the obstacles were greater as the government slashed their benefits.
For example, in the past, health insurance would cover the cost of a wheelchair, but now those in need of one must pay half the price themselves. For Polychronidis that was an outlay of 3,200 euros ($3,600). They also have to pay a larger percentage of the cost for physiotherapy and medicine.
And if somebody cannot afford these expenses, Polychronidis says they simply can’t get the medicine and equipment they need.
“The costs are high,” says Polychronidis, who joined protests against the cuts when he returned from the Beijing paralympics in 2008.”
“Last year, I spent 10,000 euros [about $11,250] on boccia equipment. From this equipment, today, I only have a quarter of it. All the rest is new. I’ve been lucky that from the beginning, my father bought most of it for me. To be a professional athlete in Greece – it’s like having a second job but with a greater risk.”
With additional reporting by Thodoris Skoulis.