By Daniel Howden
ATHENS, April 14 Reuters - When Athens won the rightto stage the 2004 Olympics many questioned if therewould be enough golden Greeks mounting the podium tojustify their host status.
Juan Antonio Samaranch, then International OlympicCommittee (IOC) president, voiced concerns that a lackof top competitors might result in the homecoming Gamesfailing 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 Greeknational anthem was heard at the Olympics was at theopening and closing ceremonies.
Greece won a miserly three golds in track and fieldbetween the Athens 1896 revival and the 1996 AtlantaOlympics.
A single bronze medal in Seoul in 1988 became a goldat Barcelona four years later, before an eight-medalhaul at Atlanta.
Then Greece took 150 athletes to Sydney in 2000 andreturned with 14 medals.
With four months to go, there is unprecedentedoptimism in the birthplace of the Olympics, which willbe the smallest nation to host the Summer Games sinceFinland in 1952.
The man charged with delivering medals is former highjumper and current head coach of the Greek Olympic team,Odysseas Papatollis.
We have a difficult mission...but I think we'll doit,'' he told Reuters. I think we’ll get at least 20 medals. The host cityalmost always doubles their medal tally from previousGames 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 SeoulGames, hosts South Korea increased their haul to 33after taking 19 in Los Angeles four years earlier.
Former Papatollis protege and high jump medallist atAtlanta, Niki Bakoyianni, said today’s champions wereriding a wave of public funding and sponsorship that wasonly a trickle a decade ago.
In theory the funding was always there, but inpractice you could wait six months for a pair ofshoes,'' she said. Shoes are no longer a problem. Greece's sports federations receive more than 13million euros annually from the government, while asingle sponsorship deal for the track and field teamwith a telecommunications company netted more than $3million. Individual athletes are in demand for endorsements andsprint king Kostas Kederis even has a high-speed ferrynamed after him. Papatollis said a shift in attitude that came withwinning the bid in 1997 had helped Greece's sportingfortunes. Our coaches shadowed the world’s best, saw them inaction, learnt new techniques and brought them home.Wenow have some of the best coaches in the world,’’ hesaid.
The most effective, and controversial, of the newgeneration of trainers is Christos Tzekos.
His stable of sprinters includes 100m Europeanchampion and Olympic silver medallist Katerina Thanouand Kederis, holder of a unique treble of Olympic, worldand European titles at 200 metres.
Tzekos says he has fused the techniques of the formerSoviet bloc with the American work ethic.
The good thing about Greece is that it's in themiddle of two different sports cultures. There is theEastern bloc, which did a lot of research, and the USculture which is a lot of training and a lot to do withnutrition and dieticians.'' I combined this knowledge and made something new,’‘he said.
After one year under the workaholic nutritionist,Kederis went from a journeyman 400-metre runner toOlympic champion.
Tzekos has been a target for the anti-doping lobby buthe says the secret of his success is not steroids.
He says the turning point came a decade ago in Floridawhen he met fellow Greek Christos Iakovou, the man whowould later turn the national weightlifting team intoworld beaters.
Christos is one of the best strength andconditioning coaches in the world, he won the worldchampionships, took world records and Olympics. Wearrived at common conclusions over strength training,''said Tzekos. Between them they delivered more than half of Greece'sSydney medal haul. The giant Iakovou and his stable of lifters know thatthey, more than anyone, will carry Greek expectations. But three-times Olympic champions Akakios Khakiasviliand Pyrros Dimas are now 33 and 35 respectively. They are not what they once were and if it were notfor 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 willcome from judo, taekwondo, sailing maybe, evenbasketball.’’
The inspirational performance of taekwondo championMichalis Moroutsos at the last Olympics spawnedthousands of martial arts enthusiasts across Greece.
Sailing seems certain to provide domestic winners with470-class duo Sofia Bekatorou and Emilia Tsoulfa heavyfavourites after World Cup success.
By Daniel Howden