By Jonathan Rest
Spyros Capralos, president of Greece's Hellenic Olympic Committee, has expressed serious doubts about Greece's ability to send a competitive team to the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, as the economic crisis in the country continues to cripple national sports bodies.
In an exclusive interview with Sportcal, Capralos, who is seeking re-election at the HOC's February elections, said that sport in Greece is facing its most difficult four-year cycle, less than a decade after the capital Athens staged the 2004 Olympic Games.
Several federations have claimed that they will be unable to function from January 2013, when their combined share of state funding will shrink to about €14 million ($18 million) from €34.6 million this year. That represents a 75 per cent cut from 2009.
Capralos told Sportcal: "Now we are not talking about growth in sport, we are talking purely about survival. The finances of the whole country are in difficulty, so it is very hard to ask for money for elite sports when the government does not even have money for the salaries of people or medicines for the hospitals. Money and budgets are coming down for all the sports federations and I think it is going to be a very difficult four-year term in the [Hellenic] Olympic Committee.
"In London [for the 2012 Olympics], we had a big team, 103 athletes, and that was mainly thanks to the efforts of the HOC who managed to find money from sponsors to send the athletes to qualify and then to send them to the Olympics. But it is going to be even more difficult for Rio. I expect to have an even smaller team."
The Hellenic Swimming Federation did not send its athletes to last month's European Short Course Championships in Chartres, France, instead focusing its finances on the equivalent FINA World Championships, which get under way in Istanbul, Turkey this week. The governing bodies of gymnastics and fencing in Greece are said to be the most at risk because of the budget cuts, but Capralos said the effect will be widespread.
He said: "Every sport is at risk because funding is being cut across the board. There is a real risk of going backwards. We will try and fight as much as we can, not just to enter the stadium first in the Olympic Games but also to have quality athletes who will do their best and hopefully bring medals to the country. But I fear it will not be easy."
Capralos dismissed suggestions from economists that spending on the Athens Olympics had played a part in Greece's financial downfall, and lamented the country's failure to "kick on" after the games by bidding to host major sporting events.
He explained: "A few people blame the Athens Olympics for the deterioration in the finances of the country. But we had a total cost for the Olympic Games of €8.4 billion, much lower than the cost for the London games, and the cost of the Athens games included a lot of infrastructure that was greatly needed by the country and the city. The €8.4 billion spend out of a total debt of around €350 billion that Greece has is meaningless.
"I think the Olympic Games in Athens were a big success, because many people believed Greece could not pull this off. The games were very good, the city was transformed, there was a great legacy and a lot of pride for the Greek people to hold such a difficult logistical event.
"But something that should have happened in the eight years after the Olympic Games was that having had first-class sporting facilities for every different sport, Greece should have bid for major sporting events, while of course making sure it would not be creating a bigger deficit. I'm sure there are events that you can organise without costing a lot of money that could keep Greece on the map of sport. I feel we have missed the chance."
Last week, the International Olympic Committee demanded that the national Olympic committees of Greece, Lithuania, Malta and Serbia impose sanctions on several of their officials, including Capralos, for breaches of its code of conduct relating to the sale of tickets for London 2012.
The move followed a report from the IOC’s ethics commission, acting on evidence obtained during an investigation into the sale of Olympic tickets by the UK’s Sunday Times newspaper. The probe found that senior officials within the NOCs were using their positions to obtain and sell on tickets at many times their market price.
Profiteering on tickets in this way is strictly forbidden under IOC rules.
The commission warned that if the NOCs fail to act against their officials, the IOC’s executive board can take “appropriate measures,” including the withdrawal of accreditations for future Olympic Games, Youth Olympic Games, IOC Sessions and other IOC meetings.
However, Capralos, who maintains his innocence in the ticketing scandal, believes he has the backing of his colleagues to win February's HOC presidential election, and, if successful, said he will strive to improve the fortunes of Greek athletes.
He continued: "I think that one of the reasons many of my colleagues in the HOC have convinced me to run again is basically the fact during the previous four years we managed, and I managed through my own personal connections, to bring a lot of private sponsorship money into the Olympic committee. Without that, the result of the Olympic committee would have been disastrous. We will try the same efforts even though times are now more difficult.
"I will do my best to help the athletes by again trying to raise money from different sources, not limited just to sponsors, but also ticketing agencies and other marketing programmes of the HOC in order to be able to fund elite sport. The IOC has been very supportive in granting scholarships for Greek athletes, and we appreciate their efforts to help Greece, the birth place of the Olympic Games, in these tough times."