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Balkan Teams Optimistic for Olympics

August 11, 2004

By Christopher Deliso

As the Athens Olympics descends upon us, various Balkan countries are confident of victory in Greece. Of course, it’s part wishful thinking, but also there are some definite contenders.

Yet scandal has already arisen in the case of Bulgaria, and a general air of giddy confusion prevails as the Greeks grapple with last-minute media disparagement, security concerns, rogue winds and leaked plans. In short, nothing entirely unexpected.

The first and most serious problem has to do with Bulgaria’s Olympic committee head, Ivan Slavkov, now embroiled in a vote-fixing scandal involving a Serbian sports agent. According to VOA, Slavkov “…intends to step down temporarily from his executive positions in the country’s Olympic committee and the national Soccer Union,” following an undercover BBC television investigation that showed him, Serbian sports agent Goran Takach and “businessmen” (really BBC undercover journalists) discussing how votes could be bought for London’s bid to host the 2012 Olympics.

Three other agents, Gabor Komyathy, Mahmood El Farnawani and Muttaleb Ahmad, were also shown in the video and have been denounced as ‘personae non grata’ by IOC President Jacques Rogge.

For his part, Slavkov – chief of Bulgaria’s Olympic Committee since 1982 – claims he knew all along that the operation was a set-up, and actually “…played along to expose what he thought was a real attempt to corrupt the process.”

While it’s still not clear as to who is telling the truth, there are other relevant factors involved, such as the reputation of Bulgarian athletics and the status of London’s bid.

Bulgaria’s Novinite.com recently interviewed Craig Reedie, a member of the International Olympic Committee, and chairman of the British Olympic Association. Reedie also figures in the administration of the current games, as a member of the Athens Olympics’ Marketing Coordination Commission. He is further involved on a similar commission in regards to the upcoming Beijing Olympics of 2008.

Reedie denied that the scandal would detract from either London’s bid for the 2012 summer games or the Bulgarian bid for the 2014 Winter Olympics, but added that there might be some “disappointment” among the Bulgarian contenders this week.

Aside from its traditional strengths in sports such as weightlifting and wrestling, Bulgaria is placing its hopes in contenders like female rowing champion Rumyana Neikova, a 31 year-old who won a silver medal in a race that “…was determined through a photo finish.” This time around, she is being considered as the “…most serious candidate for the Olympic gold,” avers Novinite.com.

Another scandal beset the Romanian team when on August 4 hurdler Carmen Zamfir was disqualified from the games and suspended for 2 years after testing positive for steroids.

The confident Croats hope to prevail in water polo and that odd Balkan obsession, handball. However, neighbors Serbia also excel in these events. Water polo favorites also include Hungary, Italy and the United States. Croatia also has hopes for weightlifter Nikolai Pesalov, a gold medalist at the Sydney games.

Albania, meanwhile, is sending its largest team to date, a total of 7 athletes (2 weightlifters, 2 swimmers, 2 track and field competitors and 1 wrestler. “…Even though it is a modest team, this is the biggest ever-Albanian representation at the Olympics,” said the country’s Olympic Committee President Hysni Domi. “Everywhere in the world, Albanians will gather together and support the Albanian Olympic team.” He’s right about that.

As for the Turks, they’re also sending their largest squad – a bit larger at 67 athletes. Hopes are high, with competitors expected in 10 different events and star athletes like 1500m runner Sureyya Ayhan and 5000m world-record holder Elvan Abeylegesse expected to take gold.

The 26 year-old Ayhan has personally raised the profile of Turkish running in the same way that the Turkish World Cup team did for football in 2002. She currently is in first place in both European and world rankings for her event. Abeylegesse is also coming off of a streak, having just set his 5000m record in Norway 2 months ago – a first in Turkish sporting history, says Southeast European Times.

Turkey has also become a powerhouse in weightlifting and wrestling in recent years, with Hamza Yerlikaya (gold medalist at Atlanta and Sydney, twice world champion, and six time European champion) and.Seref Eroglu (once world champion and three-time European champion) also expected to place high, the report adds. And Halil Mutlu, gold medalist at Barcelona and Sydney, is one of 10 weightlifters on a strong Turkish team that will compete in Athens.

Finally there is the hometown team, Greece, still gripped with euphoria following last month’s unprecedented victory in football at the European Championships in Lisbon. The Greek team numbers a healthy 430 athletes, and rather optimistically believes it can win 35 medals.

Greece will be strongest in weightlifting, predicts Southeast European Times, as well as that “old school” Greek event, track and field. Three-time Olympic medalists Pyrros Dimas and Akakios Kahiasvilis, as well as female weightlifters Natasa Tsakiris and Christina Ioannidis carry the hopes of the nation.

However, the strongest contender may be Kostas Kenderis the 200m sprinter who “…has been undefeated since Sydney and represents the country’s greatest hope for success.” 400m hurdlist Periklis Iakovakis, female javelin thrower Mirela Maniani, and discus throwers Katerina Voggoli and Tasoula Kelesidou are also strong competitors, according to the SE Times.

Of course, the same fretting from abroad over security dangers hasn’t let up and probably won’t go away until after everyone’s packed up and gone home. The Greek government insists that it’s done all it can, and considering the one billion euros being spent on security, they’re probably right. The deputy defense minister, Ioannis Lampropoulos declared that “…Greece is the most secure country in the world… we have no feeling that we are threatened by anyone.” And Games head Gianna Angelopoulos declared Athens has the “…most comprehensive, best funded, best staffed security” of any Olympics yet.

Of course, they are taking no chances. Reuters gave an example of the kind of military-style “drills” that have been taking place:

“…at a dress rehearsal for Friday’s opening ceremony, an airship loaded with electronic surveillance and eavesdropping gear floated in the night sky over the floodlit main stadium on Tuesday night and police helicopters buzzed overhead.

The rehearsal, complete with spectators, proved the 70,000-seat arena could empty in 17 minutes, Angelopoulos said.

‘We successfully tested all these different points…how easy it is to get in, how easy it is to get out,’ she said.”

Outside observers as far removed as George Bush the Elder and the People’s Republic of China have also voiced confidence in the Athenian attempts.

Yet despite this optimistic front, there are still those – like gun-toting American and British security guards and the Australian government – who fear the worst. And IOC president Jacques Rogge, no doubt still exasperated by having to deal with the Bulgarian scandal and scores of athletes who’ve failed drug tests, grumbled that “…the world has changed: a nutcase on a boat with the wrong weapons and you’re in trouble.”

While she is no doubt right, and the games will probably go off without a hitch, the amount of headaches and expenses accumulated in the past 7 years of preparing for it means that Thessaloniki Mayor Vasilis Papageorgopoulos is probably the only Greek calling for the Olympics to be held in Greece permanently.

The Greeks hope their most serious problem is the Meltemi, a seasonal wind that reaches up to 30 knots. Experience shows what might be expected:

“…Aeolos was in a bad mood this time last year with the Meltemi when it stripped the rowing test event at the coastal Skinias venue. Rowers found themselves battling with waves and in some cases swimming to the finish line as the event descended into farce.”

The winds may affect everything from the sailing and other water sports to archery and distance running.

However, all Meltemis aside, it’s more often loose lips that sink ships. Yet no one seems too troubled by the ‘leak’ that the Greeks are planning to launch the games with what could only be described as an orgy of cultural kitsch:

“…For the opening ceremony of the Olympics, organisers will turn the infield of the main stadium into a lake, mythological figures will sail through the water and a giant statue of the goddess Athene is to rise up. The ceremony was supposed to be Greece’s national secret, but after a dress rehearsal of the August 13 leaks about the ceremony flooded the city and its residents. ‘We cannot keep everything a secret. We know that,’ said a Games spokesman.”  

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