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Olympics offer few distractions for Greece

Friday - 8/3/2012, 6:18pm  ET

By PAUL LOGOTHETIS
AP Sports Writer

LONDON (AP) - For Greece, the Olympics were meant to provide relief from the long-running saga of an economic crisis. Instead, the London Games have so far yielded only a bronze amid talk of bailouts and budget cuts.

Greece has only made the medal stand once in London _ a third-place finish in a judo event by Iliadi Iliadis. And even he admits it pales in the face of high unemployment, growing debt and austerity measures back home.

Greece, ancestral home of the games, doesn't have the customary team house in London because it can't afford one. A collection of private investors stepped up to pay for one, but even that was forced to close Friday.

For Greeks, it's hard to stay positive lately.

"This bronze medal was not so nice because I can't say it is the same as Athens," Iliadis, who won gold at the 2004 Athens Games, told The Associated Press.

"Everyone is having a difficult time in Greece, so at least it's still good if people can watch TV and see us winning medals in Olympic Games," he said. "This is a moment when Greece needs medals more than any other time."

From the looks of things, it won't get many in London.

Before closing its doors on Friday, the makeshift House of Hellenes in central London paid tribute to Iliadis and Vassiliki Vougiouka, who finished fifth in the women's saber.

Family, friends and the high priestess of Ancient Olympia _ or at least the actress who plays the part during lighting ceremonies for the Olympic flame _ were among those on hand at the Carlton Club, where former British prime ministers like Benjamin Disraeli and Winston Churchill came to discuss issues of the day.

The British Hellenic Chamber of Commerce said the Greek investors chose the club for its historical significance.

"It is a big achievement just for a Greek athlete to take part and be able to prepare for the Olympics," four-time Olympian Vasileios Polymeros told a crowd of about 75.

Polymeros, who won a bronze for Greece in 2004 and a silver in 2008, said he was not sure he could do it today.

"The Olympics is so big, you have to be 150 percent focused, not 100 percent," he said. "And if you just turn on the TV in Greece and watch the news, watch what is happening, to be able to stay focused after that is amazing."

Vougiouka, who studies dentistry when she is not fencing, said the past years had been tough. She has competed alone for two years _ no teammates or doctors, just her coach along on the road. And she worries that the coach, who is Romanian, may leave.

"Our federation doesn't have the money to pay for much," she said.

Harris Ikonomopoulos, the president of the Hellenic Chamber of Commerce, said the rent for the week at the Carlton Club was put together by the chamber and private investors feeling "shame that because of the crisis in Greece we were going to be absent from the Olympics."

Ikonomopoulos' last act was to hold a conference to discuss Greece's future as an investment destination.

"We're trying to save ourselves," he said.

He pointed out that the club was a place where critical decisions about Europe have been made since the mid-1800s, so it felt like the right spot to "celebrate Olympic success but also talk about the future."

At the club, which has fixtures of Greek marble, Greece's Olympic committee also got to conduct business there without having to pay rent. The weeklong rental deal was up Saturday, but because of Olympic traffic restrictions, they had to close a day early and move out its few desks and big-screen TVs.

"It's all very frugal," Ikonomopoulos said.

Iliadis' bid to inspire and reward his countrymen will not stop at bronze. He plans on delivering his medal to the famed Mount Athos monastery in the northeast of the country, a site where he prayed, with London in mind, ahead of the games.

"Everyone outside Greece says Greeks don't like to work, that they are lazy and just like to party. We like to work, we like to train, we work to improve Greece," he said. "We're like a family here because you know everyone and we're not all bad people."

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Paul Logothetis can be reached at: http://www.twitter.com/PaulLogoAP.


(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)