USING THE POWER OF SPORT TO “LIFT PEACE UP”!
“I won my first Olympic gold medal in 1992 at the Barcelona Games. I was 20 years old. I discovered the Olympic universe. I was born and lived my early years in Albania, as a member of the Greek minority group. I was completely unaware of the power that sport can exert on youth, on society, and even on an entire country. At the time, Greece was engaged in a patient reconstruction process. It sought to regain confidence in its future and the accession to the European single market. Additionally, the capital city, Athens, was bidding to host the Olympic Summer Games.
I believe that my Olympic victory helped my country, because it gave people hope that things could change, that their lives could be better. If an immigrant from Albania can win an Olympic medal, then Greece could be a member of and thrive within the European context. That’s how I interpret my reception when I came back from the Games; along with Voula Patoulidou, the other Greek gold medalist, we stepped into a packed Panathenaicon Stadium, where the first modern Olympic Games were held. The moment felt historic; looking back at it Ι was not wrong.
The recognition that came with my success in the Olympics made me realize my social role. When little children are looking up to you as a role model it’s hard not to reconsider or at least think more about how you live your life, what you believe in, etc. I can confidently say that I have tried my best to assume this new role, with all the responsibilities that come with it. For years I had been touring Greece, talking to children at their schools about my life and career. Telling them how my minority status in Albania was excluding me from so much I wanted to do, how hard it was to live in Greece as someone who came from Albania in the beginning, and also all the great things that happened after that, I could see the eyes of some students shining with hope. I thought there is no better cause I could channel my energy into than the future.
I did that even more after the end of my weightlifting career. Then things got a bit more complicated. My sport was going through a hard time in Greece, so I had to step up and lead it out of the crisis. In 2008 I became the President of the Greek Weightlifting Federation. I felt the same when I ran for Parliament in 2012, when Greece was deep in a financial crisis, which seemed not to be ending. I think that when the people you love are having a hard time it is your responsibility to show that you are there for them, if that is something you are able to do. Later on, I joined the Council of the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF). More recently, I accepted the duties of Technical Director and Head Coach of the USA Weightlifting National team.
Last December at the Peace and Sport International Forum, I took an additional step by becoming a Peace and Sport Champion for Peace. I brandished the white card to mark my commitment to the cause of peace through sport. I feel immense pride to see that even in the current crisis, so many people are taking pictures of themselves holding white cards and sharing them on social media in the framework of the International Day of Sport for Development and Peace celebrated on April 6th.
Today, I am committed to give concrete orientation to my action. I want to strengthen the work of my foundation, the “International Sports Institute PYRROS DIMAS”, which was created in the hope of developing and promoting sport through activities with a social dimension. It implements projects using sport for education, especially in migrant communities and refugee camps in Greece and additionally supports weightlifting athletes. But I would like to go further. I would like to extend the Institute’s actions to an international level. In 2020, it is everyone’s responsibility to do their part in “lifting peace up”.