(EJU): At the beginning of July Athens hosted the Cadet European Judo Championships, an event for athletes under nineteen. The competition was held at the Olympic Arena of Ano Liossia, the same venue that ten years earlier had witnessed 17-year-old Ilias Iliadis win the gold medal at the 2004 Olympic Games. Will this victory remain the most glorious moment in the history of Greek judo, which is now going through some tough times? What is being done today to support Greek athletes in their efforts to stay among the international judo elite? What do Greek judoka expect from the European Championships in Athens, the World Championships in Chelyabinsk and the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro? These, among others, were the topics discussed at the “round table” with Dionysios Iliadis, 1st Vice-President of the Greek Judo Federation, and Nikos Iliadis, Head Coach for the Greek national judo team.
Interviewer: Nikos, you have been in charge of the Greek national judo team for 15 years now. However, I believe you were born and raised in the Republic of Georgia. Will you remind us of the circumstances of your life?
Nikos Iliadis: I was born in 1957 in Kvemo Kedi, a village in Kakheti. Just like all boys in Georgia, I began wrestling in early childhood, first for the title of the best wrestler in the village, then in the district, and on it went. I learned sambo and judo as a school student and while serving in the army; I won the republican championship title. When I was discharged from active service, I graduated from the University of Tbilisi with a degree in economics. At 21, I was injured, and my career as a professional athlete came to an end. Later I moved to Dmanisi, the main township in a region that in the Soviet times had a big population of ethnic Greeks. I worked at the local sports school organizing competitions in various kinds of sports; young athletes I was working with began to win republican titles. So, the local authorities gave me a new job… managing a bakery.
Interviewer: What a strange turn of events!
Nikos Iliadis: Well, the people in charge probably thought that if Nikos [as he was often referred to] were able to do this one thing well, he would succeed doing something else, too. And here I was – I knew nothing about bread other than the fact that it was food! On top of that, none of my predecessors stayed in this job for more than six months: some went straight from the director’s office to a prison cell. Still, I thought I would give it a try, and a year later my bakery was the second most profitable in Georgia. The employees’ salaries tripled. Unfortunately, I had to forget about sports for the time.
Interviewer: Why, in spite of such success in business, did you end up moving to Greece?
Nikos Iliadis: In 1991 ethnic Greeks were officially allowed to move to their ancestral homeland. I was one of the first to go, along with my wife and four daughters. At the beginning, nobody offered me jobs training champions or managing businesses, and I had a big family to feed. At first I worked at a car repair shop, then went into farming, and learned it all from scratch. I grew tobacco and vegetables, made decent money when the harvest was good. My family helped me.
Interviewer: How did you find your way back to the sport?
Nikos Iliadis: My nephews were growing up and started to practice karate. This one time I went to watch them and was shocked by how unprofessional their coaches were. I pulled the boys straight out of their practice and took them to a wrestling club. In the evenings, I would come to watch the boys practice, and in a couple of weeks I lost patience and asked the club owner if I could teach a class. He let me, reluctantly, but the day after he gave me the keys to the club and said: “You are in charge.” A month later, he gave me my first paycheck – 150 dollars, a pitiful sum for a man with a big family. So I decided to start my own club.
On the Way to Success
Interviewer: Setting up a club comes with some big risks.
Dionysios Iliadis: Nikos was never afraid to take risks!
Nikos Iliadis: Exactly! During our very first year of operation three of our students won medals at the Greek Championship for 14-year-olds. Three years later, in 1998, our club won the national team championship. Since then, we have stayed on top most of the time. As if that were not enough, of the seven judoka on the Greek Olympic team at the 2004 games in Athens, six were our students!
Interviewer: One of them became the Olympic champion. I remember the joy that erupted at the stadium after the stunning win by Ilias Iliadis. How did he end up training at your club?
Nikos Iliadis: I do not wish to take all credit for that. I have to give what is due to the Georgian judo school and Guram Modebadze, Ilias’s outstanding first instructor. As for Ilias, I first noticed him at a junior championship in Spain. He was 13 then. As I have already mentioned, I have four daughters, and three of them are good athletes – they play handball. Still, I always missed having a son. So, I took the first opportunity that presented itself to offer Ilias to become my adopted son and move to Greece.
Interviewer: Why did you think that this young boy was so special?
Nikos Iliadis: I was very impressed that Ilias was never timid or anxious on the tatami. Also, he is a rare combination of raw talent, diligence and strength of character. Here is one small example: as a child, he lived on the outskirts of Tbilisi, but came into the city center every day to practice judo.
Dionysios Iliadis: I was a wrestler and competed for many years at a decent level, saw many champions at their best. In my opinion, Ilias is a phenomenal athlete – there are enough fingers on one hand to count those who are in the same league with him. I think he is up there with the legendary Yasuhiro Yamashita and two or three others. At 73 kg, he competed in the -100 kg weight category, and defeated everyone!
Interviewer: And what if he were to fight the French giant Teddy Riner?
Dionysios Iliadis: I believe Ilias would win. He is very good at competing against big and heavy guys. He is as strong as they are, and when it comes to agility, he is the faster one on the tatami. It is true that Ilias has not faced Riner in an official competition yet; however, during sparring sessions at a training camp he was quite confident in his hold on the French judoka. They sparred twice at training meets, in Japan and Paris, and Ilias threw Riner both times. All that is left to be seen is the result of an official fight between the two. I can guarantee that the spectators would not be bored!
Fighting for Survival
Interviewer: There is unfortunately no way to avoid talking about the crisis. Nikos, 23 years ago you moved to a prosperous country, but for a few years now Greece has been in turmoil. Unemployment is on the rise, and income levels are falling. How is Greek judo surviving these circumstances?
Nikos Iliadis: We just keep working at it and we never give up – one should never despair! Never. Especially since we have the understanding and support of such individuals as the EJU President Sergei Soloveichik and the International Judo Federation President Marius Viser. As of December last year, our team (along with Ilias Iliadis, an acknowledged leader in the sport of judo, we have three European Junior Champions and the winner of the Junior World Championships on our team) has been receiving funding from the EJU to travel to major international championships and training camps. We have never been refused help when we needed it. At the same time, the National Olympic Committee of Greece and the Ministry of Sport have allocated a total of 220 thousand euros for all judo needs in the country. Of that sum, 208 thousand will be spent on the needs of the Federation. Would it be possible to work productively on the remaining 12 thousand euros and take part in the Olympic trials, which started in May? Athletes cannot afford to miss tournaments if they are to accumulate enough points for their ranking. At the moment, there are five athletes training with us who have a good chance of competing in the 2016 Olympic games. They are now 20 years old, and have been practicing judo at our club since they were 7 or 8. In the very near future, these young men may be capable of becoming the leading judoka in Europe and the world.
Interviewer: I think that the common goal is to make sure these talented judoka have everything they need to grow and practice their sport at the highest level. We cannot have a country as important as Greece drop from the European judo scene!
Nikos Iliadis: I believe we will persevere! Up until 2008 everything was going well for us. We were able to take 15 to 20 of our athletes to training camps and competitions – as well as invite judo practitioners from Georgia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine to participate in our own training camps, which they did free of charge. Due to the crisis, it has become hard; still, we have no right to give up. Also, our friends and my former students, who have retired from professional sport, appreciate how hard the situation is, and continue supporting us.
Interviewer: It is very important to build strong bonds with students, so that even when they no longer practice the sport professionally, they remain grateful, follow the events at their former club and are there to support it.
Dionysios Iliadis: There could be access to money. The International Olympic Committee, in recognition of our accomplishments to date, has allocated 2.5 million dollars to us as part of a special program. However, we are unable to receive the money, because the EU 3, the three countries that are managing Greece’s finances now, would immediately put pressure on the tax administration to transfer the funds to the state budget. In general, the money situation is absurd. It is thought that Greece is receiving loans for the purpose of solving its financial and social problems. However, right now too high a percentage of the funds goes to servicing the debt so that the people (whom the EU is supposed to be helping) do not receive anything at all, and the country goes still further into debt. Naturally, under such conditions the state has no funds to allocate to sports.
Interviewer: Under such harsh conditions, how often does Greece host international competitions?
Nikos Iliadis: There is this one international tournament for junior athletes that we have been hosting every April for the last six years under the auspices of the EJU. Every year, there are 5 to 6 more countries that participate: at the beginning, there were 18, and now there are more than 30. The presence of athletes from Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and other former Soviet republics ensures the highest level of competition. Athletes who take part in this competition are awarded ranking points for European and world championships. Mind you, we do this without the help of sponsors, on our own – there are three brothers in our family, and the nephews pitch in, too. For us, organizing this tournament has become an important family affair. We are our own sponsors – we fund this event.
Interviewer: This could be the reason why Greece keeps coming up with Olympic champions. There is no budget or financial support from the state, but, as I have learned, competitions are held according to the highest possible standard.
Nikos Iliadis: You are right. The European Judo Union recognizes this fact, and uses its capabilities to help the Greek team.
Interviewer: Nikos, have you been using the Olympic training facilities in Loutraki to work with your athletes?
Nikos Iliadis: We are mostly working in Athens now. The administration at Loutraki is willing to cooperate with us and offer our team more than favorable rates for accommodation, meals and renting training space. If their terms are indeed acceptable, it cannot be ruled out that the European Judo Union holds its yearly training camp in Loutraki. The EJU has a program in place to support the best adult judoka, and the International Judo Fund is planning to include promising junior athletes in it, too. This very program has been providing lifesaving support to our team for the past two years!
Interviewer: What if you helped the EJU to get a discount on holding its training camps for adults, juniors and cadets? Would you, too, be able to make some money doing that?
Nikos Iliadis: We are already trying to do that. Every month (using our won resources) we organize regional tournaments that welcome 500 to 700 athletes from 10-12 neighboring countries. Every participant contributes 10 euros, which go towards renting the facility and paying the judges. A little bit is left over for the club that organizes the tournament. We are now getting ready to host the Cadet European Championships, which will take place in July. Greece competed with two other countries for the right to host this event – the fact that the EJU awarded this opportunity to Greece seems to indicate that the EJU management does not doubt our ability to organize a spectacular tournament. This is going to be one of the best European championships in history. You have my word! We will be holding it in the same gymnasium where the 2004 Olympic judo competition took place.
Interviewer: Would you consider trying your hand at organizing competitions at higher levels?
Dionysios Iliadis: We would love to, but unfortunately we lack funds so far. Why would we apply to host a world championship while there is such a renowned international judo facility as the one in Chelyabinsk? However, the Cadet European Championships are a stepping-stone for holding other tournaments. Tomorrow, our country’s economy may improve, and it will be common knowledge that Greece is capable of organizing large-scale tournaments according to the highest standard.
Interviewer: What are Greece’s aspirations for the World Championship in Chelyabinsk?
Nikos Iliadis: We are planning to get a gold and a bronze. Naturally, I cannot guarantee that Ilias will win the championship. But I can definitely promise that he will do his best, just as my other three students will. They have already proven that they can be the best among juniors, and now it is time to win some adult fights. We make sure they get those experiences in their youth. By now, they have had several opportunities to compete in “adult” tournaments. At age 15-16 they won the Greek Championship among adults, and our club won the first prize in team competitions. They also won two or three fights each at international competitions among adults. In 2004, Ilias was just 17 years old when he competed at the Athens Olympic Games as reigning European champion. As a coach, if you see that the athlete is ready to stand his ground against older competitors, you should not be afraid to have him fight them. This is something I believe in.
Interviewer: Let us sum it up. The Greek team and its National Judo Federation remain optimistic in spite of the financial difficulties, correct?
Nikos Iliadis: Even if it gets twice as challenging, we will keep moving forward, fighting and looking to win again. There is no other way for us. I think that we choose your road once and for all, and we have to take it to the end. If you are truly strong, there is no challenge that will bring you down. Let us say that you were not strong enough, that you gave up or went into another direction. What are you going to say to those who believed in you and supported you through the tough times? Losing the trust of others should not be an option.
Interview: Boris Titov