Crisis-hit nations fight to prepare for Olympics

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By RAF CASERT, Associated Press

HELSINKI, Finland (AP) — With one hurdle left, something snapped.

It wasn't a bone or anything that serious, but Greek athlete Periklis Iakovakis somehow lost power and quickly dropped from first to last in the European Championship 400-meter hurdles final, unable to summon enough energy to keep going strong.

It's that kind of an Olympic year for athletes from crisis-hit European nations preparing for the London Games — always another obstacle.

"Of course, the crisis affects you because the world of athletics, the world of sports, it is part of society," Iakovakis told The Associated Press. "If you consider I have a family and I have two children, everything is inside my mind because I also have to think of the future."

Greece is mired in a crisis likened to the Great Depression. The country is in its fifth year of recession, unemployment tops 22 percent, and after the economy contracted by 6.5 percent in the first quarter of 2012, the government expects it to shrink a stunning 9.1 percent in the third quarter alone.

Europe has long been the cradle and the bedrock of the Olympic movement, a wealthy continent that staged games at will. But eight years after organizing the Athens Games, Greece is so cash-strapped and debt-ridden that it is struggling to send its athletes fully prepared.

"Now I have to search the Internet to find the best flight, the best fare option depending on the dates I want to travel," said the 33-year-old Iakovakis, who won the 400-meter hurdles bronze medal at the 2003 world championships and gold at the 2006 European Championships.

The financial crisis in Europe has specifically affected the Mediterranean rim, with only a few nations spared.

Italy, which bitterly fought with Athens to bring the games to Rome in 2004, is in such dire straits that the capital city dropped its bid for the 2020 Olympics after Premier Mario Monti said the government could not back its estimated $12.5 billion cost.

For this year's games, the Italian Olympic committee's budget for 2012 has been cut by 20 percent compared to last year.

Italian gymnastics coach Paolo Bucci, who used to string together jobs in ballet, acrobatics and at a gym to make money, knows what it takes to live on a shoestring budget as a top-level athlete.

Still, he had one message for Monti, who is seeking to lead debt-laden Italy to a more sustainable future with often drastic cuts in programs, including sports.

"Monti, the money is gone. Enough!" he shouted during the European gymnastics championships in Brussels in May, complaining about the cuts from the Italian Olympic committee.

Thumping his broad chest, Bucci said only one thing can save the Italian team now.

"We have a lot of heart and passion," he said. "The Italian people are like that. A lot of passion."

Across many countries using the common euro currency, government sports budgets have been undermined, several big banks have been crippled in their sponsorship capacity and other major companies are treading carefully before spending scarce resources.

In Estonia, defending Olympic discus champion Gerd Kanter is worrying about sponsorship further dwindling and is seeking to survive on little money. In France, pole vaulter Vanessa Boslak is seeing early retirements among her fellow athletes because, after all, people have to find a job for the rest of their lives.

In Greece, the country needed an international bailout to save it from bankruptcy and was forced into Draconian austerity measures. Youth unemployment rate stands at 52.1 percent at last count in March.

This spring, the Greek athletics federation suspended operations for lack of money.

"There is big pressure on people who are starting to destroy their lives. They don't have a job and they don't know what to do," Iakovakis said. "You are just watching this."

The last time such a financial shock ripped through Europe's sporting world was when the Soviet empire fell more than two decades ago, leaving many east and central European nations gasping for survival.

IOC President Jacques Rogge was head of the European national Olympic committees at the time and remembers well how national pride saved the day for sports.

His biggest fear now is how the grass-roots will be affected by a crisis which has yet to show an end in sight. He said the IOC and major federations were well protected by multiyear contracts bringing in heaps of sponsorship.

"But at the base, the small clubs, it will be difficult because there is less aid from the national federations, less sponsorship and fewer ticket sales," Rogge said.

Yet he is confident Europe's troubled nations will survive the sporting crisis.

On July 1, Spain and Italy played in the European Championship football final, while much wealthier countries like Germany, the Netherlands and Britain were eliminated.

"In European and world championships," Rogge said, "you see that southern countries are still very strong, despite the crisis."

Italian Olympic committee President Giovanni Petrucci is hoping to prove that in London, no matter the financial conditions back home.

"I don't want to hear excuses," Petrucci said. "If we lose, it's not because of the money."

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AP Sports Writers Michael Casey in Doha, Qatar, and Andrew Dampf in Rome contributed to this report.

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