«I have never felt like refugee, but i have faced a lot of racism»

“In the refugees I see the common struggle all people have. They want a better future for their children, not one filled with suffering and worries. People can withstand anything: hunger, and authoritarian regimes. However, it is extremely difficult to accept the idea that you and your children may go to sleep one night and not know whether or not you will wake up alive the next day due to a bomb,” says Pyrros Dimas. He has got four children: Eleni, Vicktora, Maria and Nickola. He knows very well what anxiety parents experience when it comes to their children. Right now 60% of refugees in Greece are women and children.

This three-time Olympic gold medal winner and one-time bronze winner came to Greece from Albania in 1991. “Personally I have never felt like a refugee. I came to my country. I did not go to another country to feel like a refugee or an immigrant. I came here with legal papers and with my entire family. I also had help from Yianni Syorou. However, there were other people from the Northern Epirus who came here illegally from the mountains and who risked their lives. Among the first to come here were Tselilis and Mitrou who told me how they got past the mountains while walking on a frozen river during winter and hearing the bullets whistling past the tops of their heads. A lot of people were lost then trying to get to Greece looking for a better tomorrow both for themselves and their children,” he says.

I met Pyrros after his first Olympic gold medal in Barcelona. I had been working for EPT 3 together with my wife, Anastasia Sthonkou. We were getting ready to leave the EPT 3 office on Stratou Boulevard for Italian lessons. When she asked if I minded her bringing along a friend, I really did not want a third party. I knew we would end up having a good time instead of learning . (We had the lessons at Rika’s house. ) Our friend was waiting outside the French Institute, which is opposite EPT 3. I had a motor scooter then, a sprint 150 of the year 1970. It had such an old chassis that it could not stand upright. I then leaned it against trees, walls or columns. Once we arrived, Anastasia got off the scooter, which I tried to lean against the sidewalk. It almost fell off my hands when I saw that the “friend” we were going to take with us to the Italian class was Pyrros Dimas. I took him to the class on my scooter and since then my sprint 150 has acquired a different value. I emphasized to whoever was sitting on the back seat that an Olympic winner had once sat there. Since then Pyrros has won two more Olympic gold medals, one bronze and world records. He even gained distinction and a position in the Greek legislature but he is still the same person. It may take a while to see him, but when I do it feels as if I am meeting an old friend, not a Greek athlete with the greatest distinctions in the history of Greece. This time I was in Litohoro, in Anastasia’s house. I asked him for and interview on the US Federation of Weightlifting and on the refugee issue.


«The Honour of the Greek People Saved Us Then and Continues to Save Us to This Day»


«Greece was never ready to accept refugees from Albania then, nor was it ready to accept refugees from the war zones in the Middle East,” realizes Pyrros and he continues, “Fortunately, the sense of honour of the Greek people saved us then and now. I remember the people of Yiannena giving food, clothes, and blankets to the people of Albania. The same thing has happened on the islands and on Eidomeni. The ordinary people saved Greece’s image and taught the whole planet what humanity means. The government is absent. It acted in an inhuman, tragic and unacceptable way. It piled up refugees on buses and took them from Athens to Salonika and Eidomeni for six or seven days as if they were not people. The government then created camps at Eidomeni, where refugees lived under inhuman conditions. I kept looking at these and asked myself if the government had any plans or rules. We see, for example, what is happening in Germany. There is registration of all refugees who all live under humane conditions. I often drive by the old Greek airport and see the miserable conditions that exist there. The government, with all its indifference, positions refugees next to local residents. There were no regulations in the beginning and there continues to be a lack thereof. Most of the work was done by citizens and institutions like NGO. I mean the organized NGO because there were others that played a strange role. Even the NGO that were under suspicion because they had encouraged illegal behavior on the part of refugees were the responsibility of the government, which should have checked who had entered or left the camps. Was what happened with No Borders in Salonika in favor of the refugees? The government allowed such behavior and in fact what it did was create a negative image of the refugees».


The Pyrros Dimas International Institute That Helps Refugees through Athletics


Pyrros Dimas can no longer be a government representative but he is a “thinking citizen” and he is interested in politics. He says, “I cannot just sit on my sofa and just watch what is happening.” He continues: “This is why we want to do something about the refugee crisis under the auspices of the Pyrros Dimas International Institute of Athletics. The institute was established to offer athletics programs and education to people and areas that have especially been hit hard by the crisis. The programs for refugee children are already under way in Elaiona, Shisto, Mitilini, and Kara Tepai, Moria, Diavata in Salonika and Skaramanka. We offer the children the chance to do sports and sports they love. We work with small groups and with expert gymnasts. We organize football groups for children and teenagers, volleyball matches for women and aerobics, which was very difficult to organize in the beginning but eventually it succeeded. We take part in local championships and have played in the National Group for the Homeless. Some refugee athletes tried to take part in the Olympic Games in Rio, but it was not easy to reach even the lowest standards. Moreover, there were even scenes of violence in the camps. The unaccompanied refugee children see their coaches like fathers. Things have calmed down greatly. It is not necessary for me to tell you what these children are like psychologically. As we all know, sports are a form of therapy. Sports help children to let off steam and get organized. They also contribute to the children’s socialization and confidence. They also help children become acculturated in the local community. It was a unique opportunity for us to offer children living under difficult conditions the following: athletics, the struggle, and the importance of not giving up . I know what these children are going through because my family and I know what it is like to be uprooted. Exceptional children in training will be called to take part in the next Pan-Hellenic Weightlifting Championship in Halkidki at the end of the year under the auspices of the Greek Federation of Weightlifting. Our goal is to help the refugee children become members of Greek society. These refugees are now co-citizens and they will stay in Greece. Europe closed its borders and so we should not deceive ourselves. The government agreement was that all who passed the borders passed and those who remained in Greece remained for good.”


Racism and the Cubicle He Almost Knocked Down


The Greek Olympic winner never felt like a refugee because he felt h had returned to his homeland in 1991. However, he experienced racism. ”When the borders opened, many people from Northern Epirus and Albania came with their families, but so did a lot of criminals because the establishment had opened the prison gates . That way there was the creation of a negative atmosphere which we all remember. I faced a lot of racism. When I got on the bus I would always grab the hand straps on the bus with my hands high so that everyone would see that I was not a thief. And employees in supermarkets would always look at us strangely. It was a tough time because everyone had been negatively affected. Once I went to buy a train ticket for Nea Eiraklio. The regular ticket cost ten drachmaes and the student ticket was five. I paid twenty drachmaes and asked: ’Does the tickcet cost five drachmaes?’ The man said it cost five drachmaes for Albania. I then said I had given him twenty drachmaes and that it was not necessary for him to talk to me that way. Then he started swearing and called me a ‘badass Albanian.’ It bothered me a lot. I almost knocked down the cubicle.” he remembers.


Dream Team Weightlifting

Greek weightlifting faces huge problems. This year there was no “Greek Gold.’’ We did not manage to send an athlete to the Olympic Games,” says Pyrros Dimas. He continues, “The Dream Team stopped in 2004. In 2008 there were events with doping and the team faced a huge blow. The cutbacks for all the federations started in 2012, but for weightlifting they started in 2008.Everyone wondered what had happened to weightlifting. Unfortunately, we pay only employees and rent with the subsidy that we do get. We also pay rent for the use of the state-owned stadiums. The “Greek Gold” helped us and we are going to send Thodori Iakovidi to Rio. Unfortunately, the women lost the chance because they were four points short during the European events in Norway. We had one more athlete who reached the standard, Antony Matadidi, but he will be playing for Cyprus. He asked us to let him go and we did. The Cypriot federation found a job for him and he got some money. We cannot limit his future. He used to work with tiles here and he decided he wanted to so some training. Athletics in Greece faces great problems. We need about 20 million euros for 28 Olympic sports. Right now we are getting only 9 million and the amount will be reduced after the Olympic Games. One euro in sports is equal to millions in health. The government must realize this.


On the day I met Pyrros the World Federation of Weightlifting announced that Russian athletes would not be taking part in Rio due to doping. “I am a member of the World Federation,” he told me. He continued.” Things could not be otherwise. During the past two years Russia had eight doped athletes. They had to be excluded. Doping is something of a scourge. I believe the DOE handled the matter badly and things got worse with regard to its own products. One cannot blame an athlete for something he or she did ten years ago. You might ask if you had committed murder ten years ago and were recently found out, shouldn’t you be punished? Naturally, you should, but DOE works against it own product. The new machines designed to detect the presence of drugs are good, but we have reached a stage of degradation. If you say you are an Olympics winner they look at you suspiciously. They ask if you are taking anything. What did you use to drink, water from the sink? They place everyone in the same category. I believe drug detection samples should be taken within four years, not ten years later. I am not saying that a doped athlete found after ten years did not cheat. He or she did cheat, but DOE weakens Olympic products.’’


The American Dream and the Offer to Become Technical Director of Weightlifting


Pyrros Dimas is getting ready for a new chapter in his career. Starting in 2017 he will be technical director or the Federation of Weightlifting in the United States. When his major opponent, Mark Houster, found out about the new position, he said, “Respect.” Pyrros says,”Personally, I never expected such an offer. While having dinner with the president and secretary of the American Federation, I was asked if I had ever thought about moving to the United States. I said that I have friends and relatives there and that my daughter, Maria, is studying in Chicago and that my son, Victora, is waiting for and answer from Yale where he would like to study. When Victor got accepted at Yale, they learned about it and they invited me and my daughter to Salt Lake City for the Olympic trials and that was when I was given the offer. I did not accept right away. I asked to take some months off to go to Greece because I did not want to leave the Greek Federation or those who had expected things from me. I have learned to fight, struggle and win. When I entered the federation, we were given a fine of 400 thousand dollars and we had 350 thousand euros in debt towards third parties, which were recognized by YYA. I could only pay the fine from sponsorships, not from subsidies. Think of what we could do if we could use this money on development. We could provide a plate of food or a trek for athletes so that we could become a strong team. I will not say we could have formed a new Dream Team but a team of distinction.”

Pyrros Dimas started out in Himara, Albania. He faced racism, difficulties in life, mudslinging, great praise and he is now one of the greatest legends of the Olympics.Moreover, he was once a member of the Greek legislature. He continues his course and to those who continue to put him down he answers: “We allow small people to become smaller. They have learned to keep barking and I have learned to keep progressing.”

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