Greeks taking up running faster than ever before
The popularity of the sport in Greece has given rise to new professions, offset the losses of others and changed many people’s view of exercise
In an apartmentin the northern Athens suburb of Maroussi, amateur runner Marios Kritikos stores his precious collection in a cardboard box on his nightstand. “I keep them all,” he says as he unfurls colored ribbons and displays the commemorative medals he’s earned from races. “There is effort and sacrifice behind these, hours spent sweating and striving to improve my performance.”
For another man, in northwestern Athens, the same objects have a completely different meaning: They provide a much-needed economic boost during the crisis. His manufacturing firm in Menidi cuts, engraves and puts together medals and cups awarded in races all over Greece. Not a week has gone by in the past four years without an order.
“Our client list has grown quite significantly. We recently sent shipments to Edessa, Spetses, Agrinio and Hania,” says Giorgos Yiannoukos, one of the firm’s partners.
In 2005, some 800 Greeks took part in the Athens Classic Marathon, while this year more than 9,000 are expected to set off from starting line on November 8. A decade ago, Greece held no more than 50 events a year for amateur runners, but now, including mountain races, these surpass 300. Running in Greece has become so popular in recent years that even professionals have been caught unawares. It has given rise to new professions, offset the losses of others and gradually changed the mentality of many in regard to sport.
Adapting to demand
Yiannoukos’s firm is a familyowned business that has always strived to keep up with changing demand. When it was started in 1964 by his father-in-law, it mainly produced souvenirs for the tourist market. Later, a large part of production was given over to promotional gifts including letter openers, name plaques and the like. “Our clients were municipal authorities, ministries, the police and the military,” says Yiannoukos. However, that market shrank with the crisis, so the firm moved into the production of medals and cups.
The medals awarded at major in- ternational events are normally made of copper and brass and the cost can come to above 2 euros per piece. The quality is significantly lower for local running events; there is so much demand that the material used for most races is Zamak, an alloy of zinc, aluminum, magnesium and copper. The cost of production usually comes to a maximum of 0.80 euros a piece. In most races, medals are awarded just for participating and not only for winning.
“I’m particularly moved by this one,” says Kritikos, holding up his medal for the 2011 Athens Marathon, the first time he participated in the 42.2-kilometer race. “That same after- sudden interest in running be explained? ‘I think the crisis played a big role. Running is a form of stress relief and lowmaintenance. All you have to do is put on a pair of shorts and running shoes and go outside,’ says physical therapist Giorgos Psaroyiannis, a veteran runner himself. noon I was thinking where my next race would be.”
Kritikos began running on the encouragement of friends, and in a bid to shed a bit of weight. Today, at the age of 37, he works as a software engineer at a multinational firm and has completed eight marathons in Greece and abroad, two mountain races on Olympus and one 12-hour race in Elefsina.
Not everyone could understand his passion at first. “The first summer I went to my wife’s village and ran in tights, the locals laughed at me,” he says. “Last year and this year, though, I saw a lot of people either running or walking in the same ar- eas. We’re growing accustomed to the sight. It does not raise eyebrows as it once did.”
It was May 1978 when a group of amateur runners organized the first mass run in Greece, 20 kilometers starting at Aghios Cosmas on Athens’s southern coast. At the entrance to the open-air athletic center, on a metal sheet that had come unstuck from the entrance of some nightclub, the organizers had written: “Participating, not winning, is the reward. Running keeps us sharp and healthy.” Three years later, that same group of friends created the Run for Health Association of Athens (SDYA). The members continued to organize their own races but also to support the Athens Marathon with their presence even at a time when participation was limited to a few dozen.
“It was the first association in the country that represented what was already popularly known in America as jogging,” says the president of the association, pensioner Eleni Bertsatou. “SDYA became the womb that gave birth to sport for the people on a mass scale.”
Several years later, Nikos Polias, a star of the Greek Marathon and an Athens Polytechnic graduate – also holder of seven firsts and a panhellenic record on the classic route – initiated the next step in the evolution of foot races by introducing to Greece the first electronic timing chips which were affixed to runners’ shoelaces.
“It was more of a game than a serious investment with a business plan. No one could have predicted developments. In 2002, when we were first starting out, we had one race, the Athens Marathon, and no idea what the next year would bring,” says Polias. His company is now responsible for timing 85 events a year. On some weekends he may have to set up his gear in four different cities. Another four companies have also emerged offering the same service.
Improving the quality of the races with precision timing and offering the athletes isotonic drinks, gifts and other memorabilia has also increased their operating costs and in the past few years, runners in Greece, like in many other parts of the world, are required to pay a participation fee.
The glut of events has Polias worried. He believes there are too many for the country’s population.
“We have reached the point of saturation,” he says. “I think we will strike a balance and be left with the races that are more serious and ensure the runners’ safety and this will draw even more people.”
Many of the commemorative medals given to runners are produced by Giorgos Yiannoukos’s firm in northwestern Athens. A decade ago, Greece held no more than 50 events a year for amateur runners, but now these surpass 300.
Amateur runners train at the Olympic Stadium in Athens. Next Sunday, 9,000 Greeks are expected to participate in the Classic Marathon. ‘I want to believe that this is not a passing trend,’ says Nikos Polias.