Nicole Kyriakopoulou, Greece’s record-breaking pole vaulter, is counting the days to the London Olympics. Pride is what Greeks are good at, and the athlete is determined to give the games her best.
“Sport has given me so many experiences, it has made me a much better person in very many ways,” she says sitting cross-legged in an indoor stadium after a four-hour training session. “It is a great thing to represent your country at an event like the Olympics.”
Besides, she loves England. It was there that she scored her best performance, clearing 4.71 metres at the London Diamond Link in August.
But since then Kyriakopoulou has had to clear other hurdles – and in ways she might not have imagined.
The economic crisis engulfing Greece has had a disastrous effect on the debt-choked country’s Olympic preparations, with Kyriakopoulou among many world-class athletes hit by unprecedented cutbacks. Several coaches and suppliers have not been paid in months.
“Expenses barely cover vitamins and food,” the 26-year-old lamented. “Athletes have dietary needs. They can’t eat fast food, but over the past two years all the allowances and incentives the state gave us have just disappeared.”
Massive budget cuts recently led to the national athletics federation, Segas, suspend all track and field competitions in the country.
Kyriakopoulou, who is trying to get major sports outfitters to sponsor her, missed three major international competitions last year. “At least they weren’t qualifiers,” she says.
That was not the case for the Greek gymnastics team, stopped from travelling to Tokyo for the Olympic qualifiers because of money problems. The International Olympic Committee has had to step in with emergency funding to help other squads, including the women’s water polo team, the 2011 world champions, prepare for the Games.
As a result, when the Greek delegation files into the Olympic stadium on 27 July – in honour of Greece’s role in creating the Games it always leads opening and closing ceremonies – it will be noticeably smaller. Fewer than 100 Greek competitors are being sent to London, compared with the 151 dispatched to Beijing four years ago and 431 athletes who participated in the 2004 Athens games.
“The cuts have destroyed us,” said the soft-spoken vault jumper who has been training intensively since she was 16. “I’m not the only one. I’m actually lucky. The Hellenic Postbank began sponsoring me in December,” she says, pointing to the logo on her shirt. “They’ve helped me buy new poles, which the [field and track] federation can’t do.”
But Kyriakopoulou, like other top athletes, trains in facilities that, once the pride of Greece, have sunk into decay and disrepair. Olympic swimmers were forced to use unheated pools last winter; athletes training in one of the capital’s indoor Olympic facilities, purpose-built for the Athens games, had to contend with a leaky roof.
“Because there is no money for maintenance costs, in the winter you freeze and in the summer you boil. Athletes have strained tendons as a result,” she says, pointing to the broken mat in the landing area beneath the high jump she uses herself. “We haven’t got a water dispenser or hot water in the showers, and our housing is, well, pretty basic. There are no cleaners. We have to do that ourselves. I spent time painting mine recently.”
Although the stadium in which elite athletes train is supposed to be guarded, it is not. “There have been times when I’m training and someone just crosses the track in front of me,” she says. “I’ve had to serve to stop bumping into them. It’s terrifying. I can’t afford to be injured.”
But that is almost secondary, she says. What really riles Kyriakopoulou, and dozens like her, is that in the financial storm that has hit Greece the government has failed to act on promises to help athletes prepare for the Games.
Less than three months before the London Olympics, Kyriakopoulou is still pushing papers at the local municipality where she works as an administrator in the low-income neighbourhood of Egaleo.
“I shouldn’t be going to work but focusing on training up to seven to eight hours a day,” she says. “I miss out on morning sessions because I still have to show up at the office, even though the government voted in a law back in February that said athletes preparing for the Olympics wouldn’t have to work.”
There were, she said, about 40 top-flight athletes in her position. “If we take time off it has to be unpaid leave – and none of us can afford that. Apparently it’s a matter of bureaucracy, but it’s shocking when you think that we’re representing our country,” she says.
Vasilios Sevastis, a former Balkan decathlon champion who presides over Segas, says the cuts have had a terrible effect, not just on facilities but also on the mindset of athletes. “Psychologically, it’s been very hard on athletes. How can they prepare for the games when every day they face such problems?” he asks, surrounded by portraits of Olympic champions including Spyros Louis, who won the marathon when the modern Games were reintroduced in Athens in 1896.
“Our budget has been slashed by 40% since 2010. This year we have €6.5m to cover operating costs and basic needs. It’s absolutely catastrophic and makes no sense at all when our country’s debt is hundreds of billion of euro.”
The London Olympics is likely to be a watershed. “Nicole Kyriakopoulou should not be facing such obstacles but she is one of many,” Sevastis says. “They are incredible people who are doing what they do because they want to excel.
“I worry that the younger generation of athletes who see how they are being treated will give up when they understand that even if you are the best there are no rewards.”
By Helena Smith in Athens