GREECE: Citius, Fortius, Altius with drugs

Is gaining access to university without passing examinations enough of a motive for young athletes to take part in fixed games or to use drugs to win? Is the prospect of material rewards enough to take a risk of jeopardising health and future careers if caught? It would appear that it is as more and more young people take or are given illegal substances to enhance their performance.

Is the educational system responsible in any way for this unrestrained competitive spirit? Are universities responsible for the 'buying and selling' of degrees by parents and students? These questions need further consideration, research and debate if society is to put a stop to the fast developing dope culture. What kind of athletics games do we want? Clean competition where human endurance is tested to its natural limits or ever-breaking records with the help of chemicals of whose consequences we know nothing about?

A new drugs-related scandal has been uncovered once again in Greece. This one is far more serious than that which caused such a stir shortly before the 2004 Athens Olympic Games involving two champion sprinters. Kostas Kenderis and Katerina Thanou. Now, shortly before this year's Beijing games, 11 members of the 14-strong National Weightlifting Team were found to have used illegal substances and are running the danger of disqualification before they even compete.

Chief coach Christos Iakovou, architect of Greece's weightlifting rise from complete obscurity to world-class power in less than a decade and currently responsible for the team's Olympic Games preparations, claims the whole thing is a ghastly mistake. Allegedly, instead of the harmless food supplements ordered on behalf of the Greek Weightlifting Federation, Auspure, the Chinese firm by mistake delivered illegal substances detected in the urine samples of the athletes during an unscheduled anti-doping control test.

However, there is still no convincing answer as to why these substances arrived in the country without passing through Greek customs or why they were never submitted to the Greek Pharmaceutical Organisation for mandatory checks and authorisation. People can't help thinking that this explanation sounds like a poor excuse similar to the motorbike accident Kenteris and Thanou claimed to have had on the eve of the inauguration ceremony of the 2004 games in Athens.

Every year 1,200 students make use of favourable provisions to enter universities and athletics departments. Most of them deserve it, but there are many who abandon their athletics activity soon after registration.

George Gourdouvelis, Director of the Physical Education Department in the Education Ministry, confirms such practices exist but says it is extremely difficult to prove. The use of illegal substances, however, is another story and that's why he recommended strict anti-doping control for all student athletics events, a measure adopted by then Education Secretary Marietta Giannakou and applied since 2005.

The sad thing is that doping, the deliberate poisoning of a young athlete's body, the use of substances whose physical, mental, and psychological effects in later life are still largely unknown, does not involve only some unscrupulous officials. It is often a deliberate choice of the athletes and their families.

A Greek Olympic gold medal is worth more than €300,000 (US$480,000) to the winner who is also inducted in the country's armed forces with full rights and privileges; in other words, an honourable career, job security and an early pension. Gold medal winners are also awarded a licence to open a betting shop (a very lucrative business) they can either operate themselves or easily transfer to others at a substantial price. They can also look forward to large earnings from endorsements, commercials on TV, lectures, etc. It is a dream for many a youngster who craves to escape from poverty and a humdrum existence.

Some parents, with an eye on the rewards rather than the dangers to their children's health, actively encourage them to take up sport and use performance-enhancing substances in order to become competitive. Here, too, the rewards are substantial: youngsters who excel in a particular sport either on a national or international level are awarded a university place in their chosen subject without examinations.

It is rumoured that schools' athletics events are 'fixed' for this reason and that some parents do not hesitate to 'buy' a race for their child by paying other competitors to allow them to win. How sad that two major incidents involving drugs use and abuse would appear in Greece, the birthplace of the Olympic spirit, the country which above all should have taken care to safeguard that spirit rather than abuse it and denigrate it.

The lesson has not been learned. The measures announced four years ago to fight the proliferation of illegal substances have remained an empty letter. Once again politicians, coaches and athletics administrators deny their own responsibility while blaming each other for the country's humiliation and the danger they have inflicted on the health of the young athletes. Now cynics claim that athletic distinction is impossible without drugs.

Athletics, everyone now agrees, is big business and the Olympic Games the biggest of them all. Gone are the times when athletes competed for the honour of participation alone. In ancient Greece and ancient Olympia, the winners received a crown made from laurel; these days a gold medal means not only fame but also substantial financial rewards.

The enormity of the damage is probably best expressed by the words of one of the young weightlifting athletes who dissociated herself from the rest who still stand by their coach: "We trusted you," she said to the federation officials, "and you turned our life into a tragedy."

Greek Sports Minister John Ioannidis declared the government was considering changing the rewards for those who won championships and medals.

Perhaps it is not possible to reverse the commercialisation of the Olympic Games or other athletics championship events, but it is high time the universities reconsidered their position as regards rewarding those with athletics achievements.