The Last Word: The Greeks must go to the Games even if they're not very likely lads
Thank goodness for BBC4. True, if you flick the remote through the other myriad channels you can occasionally come up with the odd gem, such as the film version of The Likely Lads on ITV3 on Good Friday afternoon, with Rodney Bewes standing with his hangdog expression on the banks of the Tyne, bemoaning: "In the chocolate box of life the top layer's already gone – and someone's pinched the orange cream from the bottom."
Still, BBC4 has made television worth the watching, not least for the brilliant Talk at the BBC series. The week before last Sir George Robertson recalled his experiences as "Britain's first Olympian", as his 1960 interview with Derek Hart was billed. Sir George, who died in 1967, was an accidental Olympian in the first modern Games of 1896. A prize-winning scholar in Greek and an Oxford Blue as a hammer thrower, he paid £11 to make the trip to Athens after spotting an advert for the Games in a London travel agency.
"Greek classics were my proper academic field, so I could hardly resist a go at the Olympics, could I?" he reasoned. Dismayed to find there was no hammer on the programme when he arrived, Sir George competed in the shot and discus instead. He also took part in the tennis doubles, winning a bronze medal as the partner of Edwin Flack, the Australian who won the 800m and 1500m on the track.
Asked "how well organised" the Games had been, Sir George replied: "They weren't organised at all. The Greeks had no experience at all of running an athletic meeting. The thing was happy-go-lucky from start to finish. That's what made it so entertaining. It was most amusing."
Due to lack of financial support from the Greek government the organising committee, led by Crown Prince Constantine, had to raise money by selling souvenir stamps and medals. They were also indebted to a businessman, Georgios Averoff, for donating the money that allowed the Panathinaiko stadium used in the ancient Olympic Games to be reconstructed.
The Greeks may well have given the world the modern Games, with the guiding hand of the French baron Pierre de Coubertin, but they have enjoyed precious little luck with the grand quadrennial sporting show.
There were all those problems getting Athens ready for the 2004 Games, and the shenanigans involving Kostas Kenteris and Katerina Thanou and the disputed circumstances surrounding the hospitalisation of the Greek sprinters when a drug-testing team turned up at the athletes' village.
There were two home winners in the showpiece track-and-field arena in those Athenian Games: Athanasia Tsoumeleka in the 20km walk and Fani Halkia in the 400m hurdles. Both failed drug tests in 2008. And at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing Greece won just one medal in the Bird's Nest stadium, a bronze in the triple jump courtesy of Hrysopiyi Devetzi.
Four months out from the London Games, they have unearthed a new track-and-field star. At the World Indoor Championships in Istanbul last month Dimitrios Chondrokoukis was a surprise winner of the men's high jump, upsetting Olympic champion Andrei Silnov and his Russian team-mate Ivan Ukhov, the world indoor champion. "I am very happy and very lucky," the 24-year-old Athenian said, after raising his personal best from 2.29m to 2.33m.
Chondrokoukis was not so happy on Wednesday when the Hellenic Amateur Athletic Federation, Segas, announced they were ceasing operations "until further notice" in protest at drastic cuts in government funding. All domestic competitions were suspended and the Greek federation warned that they would not be able to send athletes to the European Championships in Helsinki in June.
With the threat of bankruptcy hanging over the country, the Greek government have cut their funding of athletics by a third in each of the past three years. National coaches have not been paid since June last year and athletes have complained that facilities built for the 2004 Games have been poorly maintained.
"The conditions are unacceptable and facilities are a big problem," Chondrokoukis said. "There is a lack of heat in the winter and of air conditioning in the summer. Nevertheless, we all keep trying. I do it purely for personal reasons." His father forbade politicians from attending his son's homecoming celebrations after Istanbul. "Politicians are closing athletic facilities," he said. "It is unbelievable what is happening. No politician has a right to congratulate or partake in an athlete's triumph."
By Thursday it was clear that Segas's actions would not preclude Greece from sending a track-and-field team to the London Olympics. Panos Bitsaxis, the government's general secretary of sports, said: "Greece will be in London with around 100 athletes."
The assurance came with a warning to Segas. "The gentlemen of the federation must take into account the time and place we live in today. The athletics federation is the locomotive of Greek athletics but there is no doubt that the financial crisis cannot leave Greek athletics untouched. The resources are limited."
As they were when Sir George Robertson travelled to the Greek capital for the first Games of the modern era. Let us hope, after all of its travails, that the homeland of the Games can enjoy some measure of success – if not prosperity – in the chocolate box of Olympic life in London in 2012.
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