Uplifting Experience

Lefteris Stefanoudakis, a big name in Greek weightlifting in the Seventies who competed at the Munich and Montreal Olympics, would love to have been part of an Athens Games but he is happy to have left the daily hardships of top competition behind him.

The training for up to 12 hours a day brought its rewards, including a gold medal in the Mediterranean Championships and several national records. But it also came with the constant threat of injury, always watching your diet and frequent trips to the sauna before an event to make your weight category – that was before you had even stepped on to the podium. And that’s not all.

“The sport has as much to do with the power of the mind than the body,” says Lefteris, a stocky character who looks good for his 54 years and who still works out “for fun”. “During a lift I was concentrating so hard that you could have hammered a nail into my arm and I would not have felt a thing.” And judging by the facial expressions in his faded black-and-white competition photographs on the walls of his cramped office showing him in various vein-popping poses, I can believe it.

That mental stress is sure to be even greater for this summer’s Greek athletes, given the high expectations of the home crowd, says Lefteris.

“The Greek’s will be under great pressure to perform. Having said that, everyone seems to be under pressure to succeed these days because of the reliance on sponsorship. When we went to the Olympics we had a great sense of achievement because we had paid for everything ourselves – our kit and equipment and travel expenses to events.”

And even though Lefteris returned home without a medal, he was happy to bask in the simple honour of heading the athletes’ parade during the opening ceremony.

“I couldn’t believe it when the Greek team was asked to lead the athletes around the stadium because of our country’s Olympic heritage,” said Lefteris. “It was an emotional moment because Greece is such a small national and we were ahead of the likes of America and the Soviet Union. It was one of the proudest moments of my career.

“It was great to be among so many similar-minded people from all over the world, especially for me coming from a small Cretan village. Everyone was smiling and hugging and we even exchanged small gifts.

“I remember in Montreal, there were crowds of supporters outside the stadium waiting to invite us into their homes to eat,” he says. “Unfortunately, that sort of thing is unlikely happen this time because of the terrorist threat. Security will be so tight that I doubt any of the athletes will get a chance to see the real Greece.”

Of course, terrorism is not a modern-day phenomenon and the killing of 11 Israeli athletes in Munich after an Arab group calling itself Black September broke into Olympic Village and the took them hostage shook the world. It also left its mark on Lefteris.

“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing when I turned on the television,” he says. “The day before we were on a bus with the Israeli weightlifters returning from training. We were chatting to them about their progress then they got off the bus and said goodbye. We never saw them again. That was the worst moment of my career and forced me to put a lot of things into perspective.”

It may have accounted for his disappointing 18th position overall. But the tragedy seemed to bring people closer together, forcing them to forget their differences rather than put up barriers. It also sparked Lefteris’s close friendship with a German security guard, whose father had been among the occupying force in his home village of Polemarhi, west of Hania.

“Every day we went to the athletes restaurant, where a security guard checked our ID cards at the door,” says Lefteris. “One day this guard, seeing that I was Greek, asked where I was from. When I told him I was from Crete, he was interested to know where exactly because his father had served there during the Second World War. And when I told him, it turned out that his father used to show cine films at my father’s kafenion. It was incredible.

“So we hugged and became good friends. But it still didn’t stop him sending me back to my room the next day when I forgot my pass. I respected him for that, especially after what had happened with Israelis.”

A year after disappointing results in Montreal, Lefteris quit to concentrate on helping the next generation of Greek weightlifters. Ever conscious of the support he had been given as a youngster, he wanted to repay his sport in kind.

For him it had all started at the age of 13 after a game of football in the Hania stadium – about a 100-metre dash from his sports shop Stefan Athlitika – when he was transfixed by a room full of muscular weightlifters working out in a side room.

“I said to myself, ‘I can do that’ and after talking my way inside, proved it by lifting 55kg,” says Lefteris. “They asked me to join them in Athens the following week at the junior championships, which I did and I carried off the Greek record.”

From then on he was hooked, even making his own weights out of cement. But he fees the Olympics is likely to be a great opportunity missed to ensure Greece’s future stars never have to skimp on equipment like he had to.

“Sport should be pushed in schools because the education it provides is more than just physical,” add Lefteris. “However, I fear that after the Olympics the country won’t have any money to take advantage of any increased interest. It seems the Olympics these days is more about tourism and than about sport.”

So Lefteris has no intention of boosting the Athens tourist economy this summer. He intends to follow the fortunes of today’s Greek weightlifting heroes Pyrros Dimas and Kakhi Kakiasvilis, who are both bidding for their fourth Olympic gold medals, from the giant TV screen in his shop. Drop in if you are passing, if only ensure yourself that even in Hania, the Olympic spirit is still very much alive.

1896 AND ALL THAT...

Ten things you didn’t know about Athens’ last Olympics Games.

1. The First Modern Olympiad opened in Athens on April 6, but only after a rich local architect donated one million drachma to restore the 330BC Panathenaic Stadium when the Greek government were unable to finance a new one.

2. The 245 competitors, more than half of them Greek and all male as women were not allowed to compete, came from just 14 nations. The first Olympic champion for more than 1,500 years was American James Connolly, who won the triple jump.

3. Winners were presented with a SILVER medal and an olive crown, while runners-up received bronze medals and a laurel crown. Third-placed competitors received nothing.

4. Athletes competed as individuals rather than for their country. And some, like Oxford student John Boland, went to Greece as a spectator and return as an Olympic tennis champion – despite playing in ordinary leather-soled shoes.

5. German athlete Carl Schumann kept himself busy. His gymnastic endeavours earned him victories in the individual horse vault as well as in the horizontal bar and parallel bar team events. But while he missed out on the medals in the long jump, triple jump, shot put and weightlifting, he carried off the top prize in the Greco-Roman wrestling.

6. Greek shepherd Spyridon Louis won the marathon, beating his 16 co-competitors by more than seven minutes wearing shoes given to him by his fellow villagers. Apart from his medal and olive crown, he also won free meals from an Athens restaurants and free shaves from a patriotic barber until his death in 1940.

7. Britain’s Launceston Elliott won two medals in the weightlifting, coming first in the one-hand lift with a weight of 71kg and second in the two-hand lift with 111.5kg.

8. In the rope climbing, Greek Nikos Andriakopoulos took first place after being the only person to reach the top of the rope, which was not surprising since competitors could use only their hands and had to leave their legs extended.

9. In 1896 there were no worries about the Olympic Pool – because there wasn’t one. Swimmers were dumped in the sea in temperatures of 13 degree C off the port of Piraeus and had to make their way to shore. Hungarian Alfred Hajos, who despite winning the 100m and 1,200m freestyle events, said afterwards that during the races he was more interested in staying alive that a desire to win.

10. Eight of the ten competitors in 100km track cycling event failed to complete the required 300 laps after complaining of dizziness.