Ken Maguire

ATHENS, GREECE: What happens if the country that invented the Olympics cannot afford to produce Olympic athletes?


As this summer’s London Games approach, that notion is causing great angst in Greece, where elite athletes are feeling the sting of austerity measures in the face of a historic debt crisis.


The government scrapped a plan to spend nearly $10 million a year on Olympic preparation, according to the Hellenic Olympic Committee. Athletes say their financial stipends are frequently months late, and it is common for coaches to go months without paychecks. Training centers have fallen into disrepair or have closed. A sports psychologist who counsels Greek athletes is working pro bono these days.


Greeks will compete in London, but they will perhaps be limping a bit at the opening ceremony July 27.


“Young athletes are very skeptical about continuing when they see that the top athletes are not receiving what they deserve, that they are not supported as they should be,” Vassilios Sevastis, the president of the Greek amateur athletics association, known by the acronym SEGAS, said through an interpreter. “This is the major risk.”


Greece has competed in every Summer Olympics since the modern Games began in 1896, when Athens hosted. Even during the Great Depression, Greece managed to send athletes to Los Angeles in 1932 — the year it defaulted on its external debt. For Winter Games, Greece usually sends a handful of skiers.


To build a team for London, the country’s Olympic committee has pursued private-sector sponsors and has increased its dependence on aid from the International Olympic Committee. Now the growing concern is whether Greece, the host of the 2004 Summer Games, which have come to symbolize a decade of overspending, can sustain this course for long.


Like other elite athletes, pole-vaulter Kostas Filippidis said it had been several months since he received his $1,400 stipend from the athletics federation.


“Of course it’s a thought, but I cannot be worried about this every day,” he said, adding that he lived rent-free in an apartment owned by his father. “Taking part in the Olympics for my country makes me very proud.”


Jobs program ends


A lingering and delicate issue, given Greece’s high unemployment, is a jobs program that elite athletes had relied on. In the free-spending days, athletes who won medals or finished high in international competitions were given public-sector jobs to provide salaries while they trained and competed for Greece.


In practice, they became no-show jobs, but a new law requires the athletes to go to work.


“This is a paradox,” said Sofia Bekatorou, who won a sailing gold medal in Athens and a bronze in Beijing. “You get the job to do your sport, but then you’re not able to do it.”


Bekatorou, a representative of athletes to the Hellenic Olympic Committee, said other countries had used similar programs. Without it, young athletes have little incentive to devote time to training, advocates say.


For the country’s Olympic hopefuls, financial challenges in preparing for London may be only the most immediate obstacle. Many athletes around the world are already training for the 2014 Winter Games, and beyond.


“This way is not working,” said Bekatorou, the athletes’ representative on the Hellenic Olympic Committee. “We need to find another way.”