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

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY YIAN­NIS PA­PADOPOU­LOS

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.”

Higher-cal­iber races

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.”

Elec­tronic tim­ing

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.

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