Iliadis brings Georgian cheer to Greece

Ilias Iliadis, the Georgian bear, gives Greece their first medal of the London Olympics

It wasn’t gold but it was a medal nonetheless; it didn’t have the hometown glamour of Bradley Wiggins crossing the line to park himself on the throne. It won’t make a ripple on the news in New York, London, Paris, Munich…but it is a refreshing blast of good news for Greeks all over the world.

The economy is a mess, the politicians don’t seem to have any clue whatsoever, the country is lurching in the wake of international aprobrium and feeble jokes about being in a double dip recession – the tsatsiki and the taramasalata are both off, apparently.

In the shadow of all this, a medal is something to enjoy. It won’t feed people and it won’t provide jobs but it will give the people a little lift, a reminder that Greeks can go out in the world and hold their own.

The medal in question was a bronze and it went to Ilias Iliadis in the under 90kg judo after he beat the Brazilian Tiago Camilo by yuko.

Iliadis, who had won gold in the 81kg category at the Olympic Games in Athens when he was just 17, lost to Russian Kirill Denisov who was then beaten by the Japanese Masashi Nishiyama, the man that Iliadis beat in the final of the world championships two years ago.

Dae-Nam Song won the gold for South Korea by beating Cuba’s Asley Gonzalez in the final. Iliadis and Nishiyama both took bronze.

“Congratulations to the lad that won the very first medal for Greece in the London Games,” commented the Greek deputy Minister for Sports Yiannis Ioannidis who presumably couldn’t actually remember Iliadis’ name.

It can be difficult, of course, remembering Iliadis name – and some people even question his Greek credentials. Anyone listening to Iliadis talking in Greek may well question his right wear the national colours.

He stumbles pidgen-fashion and is far happier in Russian which betrays his Pontic connection. His journey to Greece nonetheless is a peculiar one which does not appear to have been fully explained.

Born in Tblisi, the capital of Georgia, a country which is far more advanced than Greece in the world of judo, Jarji Zviadauri was adopted at the age of 12 by Nikos Iliadis who became the Greece national team coach and renamed Iliais Iliadis.

His family remained in Georgia, his cousin Zurab Zviadauri winning the 90 kg gold medal at the Athens Olympics for a strange family double. Ilias’ natural father was ringside when he won his Olympic gold.

There is no doubt about the legality of his citizenship but it is difficult to find an explanation of why a 12-year-old from a good home should be adopted and removed to a different country.

Iliadis’ defection to Greece hit a nerve in Georgia with President Mikheil Saakashvili criticising him by name for his decision not to stay in the country.

Aged 17, he was already European champion in the 81 kg category when he strode through to Olympic gold, the first Greek ever to win the top prize in judo, the youngest ever judo gold medallist.

“My age does not matter,” he said at the time. “When someone has an objective they have to fight to achieve this objective. When you have the gold medal in your sight you have to fight for it.”

As he got older so he got bigger and he subsequently moved up to the 90 kg class, settling for silver at the 2005 and 2007 world championships. Then came the injuries.

Knee surgery a month before the Beijing Olympics was hardly ideal preparation and he fell at the first hurdle, his Games saved perhaps by being given the honour of carrying the Greek flag at the opening ceremony.

Surgery on the other knee a year later contributed to a third round loss at the world championships in Rotterdam.

In 2010, though, Iliadis finally found himself free of injury and began to compete with more confidence.

He took the bronze at the European championships in Vienna and followed up with two fifth places at top ranking events in Rio de Janeiro and Moscow.

Then came the world championships in Tokyo when he overcame the local favourite Nishiyama.

Iliadis, barrel-chested and stalking his prey with the intent of a powerful, single-minded bear, gave Nishiyama no option but to defend and retreat.

“My judo is based only on the attack, I don’t really care about who is in front of me,” said Iliadis. “I just keep pushing and pushing until my opponent made some mistakes. Nishiyama is very young and strong, but I just felt so good today. Today was my day and I did it.”

Sadly, he wasn’t able to replicate that form in London. No gold medal this time – but a bronze is still a medal; and still a great excuse to set out the dips, crack open a decent bottle of Nemea and toast the fact that for Greece, architects of the Ancient Games, the 30th Olympiad is finally underway.

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Kohei Uchimura: off his game in qualifying but a gold medal performance come the big event

In other Olympics news, Kohai Uchimura showed just how champions bounce back. The Japanese gymnast is considered the best in the world, silver medallist in the all-round and world champion for the last three years. He was the Dead Cert favourite going into London.

The wheels came off though in qualifying on Saturday, his rythm and routines misfiring to such an extent that he could only qualify ninth for the all-round final, one and a half points behind top qualifier Danell Cheyva.

That was followed by Monday’s team final when Uchimora’s dismount from the pommel horse saw him whacking his head on the side of the apparatus as the judges disappeared behind a screen of papers trying to work out whether he had actually completed his dismount.

They did and Japan picked up the silver behind China. A decent enough return although a touch embarrassing for the man rated by many as the greatest gymnast there has ever been.

He put all of that to rights on Wednesday. From the start of the all-round final he was the star performer, his troubles of qualifying a distant memory. He won it with a total 92.690 points – 1.659 points clear of silver medallist Marcel Nguyen.

Leyva did well to bounce back from a poor pommel to clinch the bronze.

Uchimura is a champion in every sense.

©Barney Spender 2012

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