The Olympics have come and gone and once again, tiny Greece has over-performed what many expected, including a Goldman Sachs research team that predicted zero medals for the country’s athletes at the Rio 2016 Olympics.
The stories are mind-boggling about what the athletes had to endure— Anna Korakaki’s shooting range where she trained was demolished by the local municipality while she was in Rio winning a bronze and a gold medal for Greece. The same athlete who received little support from the government told horror stories to the Greek media after she returned home, including the numerous times she was forced to buy her own blue shirts for international competitions and sew on the Greek flag— herself.
And who can not celebrate the resilience, determination— and character— of Spyros Gianniotis, the marathon swimmer who was making his 5th Olympic appearance in Rio de janeiro only to see a Gold Medal snatched away after a technicality that the Greek coaches protested, asking the judges to consider awarding two Golds for the race.
But it was Gianniotis himself who refused to allow the protest to go on, saying that races should be won in the water, and not decided by judges. A class act, indeed.
But do these medals mean anything? Are they something a country and a government that is practically broke should even be thinking about? What role do athletics play in national dialogue beyond the celebratory events that take place around the Olympics every four years?
In my opinion— and especially for a nation like Greece— that answer is, yes. Athletics should and must be a top priority for any government, for numerous reasons.
First, consider the historic implications. The Olympics were invented here and antiquities fill numerous museums telling tales of winners and glory. The Olympics belong to the world but were born in Greece, by Greeks. It’s Greece’s legacy and historic responsibility to refute what a team of Goldman Sachs researchers said, that “Starting something doesn’t mean you’ll finish well. Greece, the birthplace of the Olympics, has poor sporting performance..”
Second, consider what winning in international competition does to the national psyche. It’s not just the Olympics. It’s the soccer super leagues and Euro Cups, the world championships and all of the competitions that bring everyone, everywhere, who is connected emotionally to that blue and white flag, a sense of pride and a reason to walk proud. And don’t Greeks everywhere— especially in Greece, need and deserve this right now, after almost a decade of economic paralysis?
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, athletics build character in young people and character builds communities and eventually, the entire nation. It’s part of the complete education process that stems from that ancient adage of the importance in developing both a sound mind and a sound body, simultaneously. Νους υγιής εν σώματι υγιεί the ancients said and by every account, they’ve been right about a lot of things— including this one.
This government— as well as ones in the past— have failed miserably at developing a strong athletic tradition in Greece. Like most fair weather fans, politicians rush to Tweet their congratulations or be in a photo op after a medal has been won, but were nowhere to be found when an athlete needed a uniform, or a place to train.
— Alexis Tsipras (@atsipras) August 20, 2016
The total defense budget of Greece in 2016 will be in the neighborhood of 4 billion euro. One per cent of this figure is about €40,000,000. It’s hard to believe that 1 percent of Greece’s already-inflated and unnecessary defense spending (second highest in NATO after the United States) would make much of a difference.
Consider some facts about Greece’s defense spending:
Greece has 1,300 tanks, more than twice the number of the United Kingdom
Throughout the 1980s, Greece’s average defense budget was 6.2% of its GDP. That number has now dropped considerably to about 2.3% but still remains one of the highest defense budgets in the world.
France and Germany are the ones really profiting from Greece’s excessive defense spending. Berlin sent almost 15% of its arms exports to Greece in 2012, with France sending almost 10% in 2012.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Greece continued to buy large quantities of weaponry from the two countries between 2010 to 2014, some of the worst years of its economic depression. During this time, Athens bought $551 million worth of military equipment from Germany and $136 million of equipment from France.
So back to that measly 1 per cent of that humongous defense budget.
Imagine what €40,000,000 could do to develop training centers for shooting, or clean up existing athletic facilities where young, rising star pole vaulters and gymnasts train. Greece isn’t a big country and doesn’t need the dozens of training centers that Germany, or the United States, have. And besides, most of the 2004 Olympic athletic centers are sitting around, empty, waiting for use– with a little fixing up.
I’m certain that many will argue that with all that is facing Greece today, athletic training facilities for young people should be one of the last things on the government’s priority list.
Do you feed people first, or train athletes? Do you fix roads and bridges, or shooting centers? Call me an idealist, but I believe that with good planning and an emphasis on cost-crunching and prevention of corruption (Greece’s sports federation bosses are amongst the most corrupt on the planet)… there’s room for everything.