INTERVIEW-Olympics-Greek judoka eyes gold for crisis-hit nation

Thu Jul 26, 2012 2:21pm EDT

Related Topics

* Georgian-born Iliadis aiming for second Olympic gold

* Wants Olympic glory to help Greeks forget crisis

By Renee Maltezou and Deepa Babington

ATHENS, July 26 (Reuters) - Greek judoka Ilias Iliadis says much more than personal glory is at stake when he goes for his second Olympic gold - an entire nation reeling from a painful economic crisis is looking to him for a moment of joy.

Iliadis, who grabbed gold in judo when he competed as a 17-year old at the 2004 Athens Games, is considered as one of Greece's best bets for Olympic glory in a year the financial problems has by far overshadowed its London Games prospects.

After winning the world championship in 2010 and 2011 in the 90 kg class, the tattooed, Georgian-born Iliadis says he is aiming for nothing less than gold in London.

"I want to win a medal because I know it will change the way people feel," Iliadis, now 26, told Reuters at his training facility by Athens' sparkling coastline.

"For a moment they will forget about their troubles."

Eight years after it hosted the Games amid a wave of unbridled optimism and economic prosperity, the country that gave birth to the Olympics is close to bankruptcy.

Nearly one out of four Greeks are out of work, salaries have been slashed and thousands of businesses have shuttered in what Greece calls its version of the "Great Depression".

"It's different this time. It was not so bad for Greece during the Athens or the Beijing Olympics," said Iliadis, who was Greece's flagbearer at the 2008 Games.

"It's not just me or the other athletes who want a gold medal - we are carrying a whole nation with us."

So far, Greece's Olympics hopes have stumbled off to a miserable start.

After months of angst over the impact of austerity cuts on Greek sport, Greece faced unexpected embarrassment this week when triple jumper Paraskevi Papachristou was expelled from the Olympics team for a racist tweet while high jumper Dimitris Chondrokoukis pulled out after failing a dope test.

WHEN THE GOING GETS TOUGH

Iliadis said judo has been spared the worst of Greece's austerity cuts and is convinced the economic crisis will only bring out the best in Greek athletes.

"I believe that this will be a good year for Greece, because when times are tough athletes become stronger," he said.

" We are proof that what they think abroad - that Greeks do not work hard - is not true."

Born Jarji Zviadauri in Georgia, Iliadis says he dabbled in various sports and did not take a serious interest in judo until he was spotted by his coach Nikos Iliadis, who adopted and brought him to Greece when he was barely 13 years old.

At the time, Iliadis did not speak a word of Greek and quit school to focus on judo - then a relatively obscure sport in the Mediterranean nation. Initially, his Georgian origins raised eyebrows, but that changed swiftly when he grabbed Olympic gold in 2004 to became an overnight sensation in his adopted land.

Asked if his Georgian roots were controversial, Iliadis said with a smile: "Only a little bit in the beginning but then the gold medal came and everything else was forgotten."

Iliadis says he hasn't looked back since. Now married to a Greek, he has two children - Mariam and Hercules - whose names are tattooed on his arm.

"Here is where I found love in my life," he said, flashing a big smile. "When I go to the Olympics I only think about Greece, because I'm fighting for Greece." (Writing by Deepa Babington, editing by Pritha Sarkar)

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