At 18 years old, Nikoleta Barba is a three-time champion of the Balkan Games, a double bronze medallist at the European Junior Championships and Greece’s most promising female wrestler. However, she lacks the financial support she needs to develop her full potential. She has only been able to continue competing at the highest level thanks to the total dedication and support of her family.
Since the onset of the economic crisis in Greece, the government has cut funding for sports federations by approximately two-thirds. According to the report Impact of Austerity Measures on National Sport Federations: Evidence from Greece, the money allocated to “sports of national priority,” such as football and basketball, fell from €37 to €12 million, while “sports of national interest,” including weightlifting and wrestling, saw their funding drop from €10 to €4 million. And while the Greek Secretariat of Sports, the country’s highest governing body for sport, has neglected to answer questions from Equal Times about the evolution of funding over recent years, despite being contacted multiple times since last November, all indications are that the situation has not improved.
Nikoleta, who understands the economic difficulties that Greek athletes face, continues the struggle to make her way in a competitive field. Her story is one of passion and family commitment. Ioannis, her father and trainer, was a wrestler in the Greco-Roman style until the age of 19, when he retired and began researching the sport at the Democritus University of Thrace. That’s where he met his wife, Evaggelia, with whom he had Nikoleta. Since day-care centres were not common in those days, and money was scarce, Nikoleta accompanied her father to training sessions every day. “He used to bring me here in a buggy,” she recalls. “I grew up here and now it’s my life,” she says.
Short, broad-necked and strong, Nikoleta trains six hours a day. She used to study in addition to training, but because professional sport requires total dedication, she ultimately decided to focus on wrestling. It’s the only possible way to achieve her dream: winning gold at the Olympic Games. She hopes to compete in 2028, when the games will be held in Los Angeles.
Komotini is one of the largest cities in Greece’s Muslim-majority regions. Here, minarets coexist with Orthodox temples. The Barba family lives on the outskirts of the city, near the university campus. Evaggelia worries about her daughter’s ‘lost’ youth. Conversations often turn to what her life might have been like without sport and what her future holds. Her mother has her doubts, as does her father, but Nikoleta’s mind is made up: she wants to wrestle.
The life of an athlete is one of routine and self-deprivation. Nikoleta gets up early and follows a strict diet. “Female wrestlers have a big problem with kilos and categories. We have to maintain our weight,” says Nikoleta, who is also dropping from the 68 to the 62 kilogram category, for which Ioannis believes she is best suited based on her build.
At the university, where she trains daily, Nikoleta works out with physical trainer Marinos Marinidis, training her muscles with balls, weights and fitness machines. Then she runs and exercises with ropes. The following day, she participates in a research project by Athanasios Gkrekidis, a doctoral student who uses sensors to test the strength and endurance of the muscles and tendons in Nikoleta’s knee.
In the afternoon, Nikoleta trains with 25-year-old Narek Grigorian, a wrestler of Armenian origin and a former fifth-ranked European junior athlete. After warming up, they wrestle. Maintaining constant contact, they grab each other’s arms and necks as they try to throw their opponent to the ground. They use their hands and legs and try to get their opponent’s back to touch the mat. When they get dragged, they roll over and resist by trying to rotate their bodies with the help of their hyper-developed necks. Apart from other nuances, the main difference between freestyle wrestling and Greco-Roman wrestling is the use of the legs, which is forbidden in the latter.
Unlike Nikoleta, Grigorian lacked family support and had to start working. Unable to completely dedicate himself to his sport, his career was cut short. He is one of many athletes who have had to give up their passion due to lack of institutional support. They are the norm.
“Unfortunately, in our country, as in others, we need more support. When you have a team behind you, and luckily I do, it’s easier,” Nikoleta reflects.
Like Maria Prevolaraki, the most successful female wrestler in Greece, Nikoleta often trains with men, as the level of women’s wrestling in Greece is not high enough. “The most important thing is to have female training partners. In Greece, and in my city, there are no female wrestlers in my category, so we go to other countries where I can find new training partners, which is very important,” Nikoleta stresses.
The professionalisation of the sport means that athletes, both male and female, are reaching their peak at a younger age. The challenge now is to stay at the top of their game for as long as possible. Recent examples include the promising youngsters of Fútbol Club Barcelona and long-distance runner Kelvin Kiptum, who in October 2023 broke the marathon world record at the age of just 23. Sport is science – everything is perfectly studied to ensure that athletes reach peak form at specific times – but it is also intuition and concentration. This is exemplified by Greek jumper Miltiadis Tentoglou, who regularly wins championships on his final attempt. Ioannis emphasises how decisive an extra second or gram can be, and highlights Nikoleta’s talent and winning mentality.
In order for Nikoleta to maintain her competitive level, every year Ioannis schedules five or six training sessions abroad, in leading countries such as Japan, Russia or Ukraine. However, as he complains, government support barely covers a third of the costs. To receive full support, athletes have to win a senior medal at the Olympics, World Championships or European Championships.
“In 2022, when Nikoleta won the bronze medal at the European Under-17 Championships, the government paid for two of the five training sessions. We paid for the rest with our own money and with the help of friends,” says Ioannis. He estimates that each training session abroad costs on average around €1,500 and that his family invests around €7,000 annually. “Every year the government cuts money for the Federation, which does what it can within its financial means. Everything is getting more expensive, but money for sport is decreasing. Nikoleta has three gold medals at the Balkan Games and two bronze medals at the European Games, and she was fifth and eighth at the World Championships. That’s a high level. You need training, and it comes at a cost,” he adds. The burden, he says, falls on families: “That’s how you achieve success in Greece”.
“The federations should provide support because athletes can’t find funding on their own. It’s an investment that our government should make so that, when these athletes mature, they can achieve sporting success,” agrees Maria Michalopoulou, vice rector of the Democritus University of Thrace. “We cannot support athletes financially. As a university, we pursue other goals, and our priority is our students,” she adds. The university can help out with discounts in the cafeteria and with facilities and professional trainers, she explains. It also collaborates with the local authorities: “They provide accommodation and we provide the additional services.”
Until the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greek athletes had world-class funding, trainers and facilities. It was a golden age for sport in Greece, crowned by an Olympics that dazzled the world but left a gaping hole in state coffers.
When the economic crisis hit, the government stopped prioritising sport. It started by tightening requirements for full funding: prior to 2008 it was enough to finish in the final eight; now athletes have to win a medal.
The government then began cutting funding for the federations, reducing it by two-thirds between 2009 and 2014. Funding for wrestling was cut by more than 50 per cent, from €2.1 million to €939,000. In 2016, Spyros Kapralos, president of the Hellenic Olympic Committee, denounced the inadequacy of aid and complained that 70 per cent of the budget allocated to athletes was being eaten up by administrative costs.
The precariousness and uncertainty can prove to be too much for many athletes. That’s why Ioannis only trains his daughter. Any unforeseen event, which in sport often takes the form of dreaded injuries, can cut short a career, especially in the absence of financial support. Operations and rehabilitation are expensive and psychologically traumatic. Nikoleta already knows this: in autumn 2022, she suffered a meniscus injury. What was meant to be a routine surgery in Athens followed by a couple of months of rehabilitation went wrong and had to be repeated – this time in Germany and at a cost of €6,000. When Ioannis didn’t have the money to pay, several people stepped up to help, including former Kazakh wrestler Daulet Turlykhanov, who contributed €3,000. The Greek state, on the other hand, did not help to cover the costs of the operation for its most promising female wrestler.
Ioannis’s quest to find sponsors for his daughter has thus far been without success. The only offer he received was from Turkish bank Ziraat, which he could not accept. As he explains, Turkish influence is viewed with suspicion in Greece, which would add to Nikoleta’s psychological pressure. The municipality of Komotini has also been unable to help. At a recent event, Nikoleta received a plaque from local authorities in recognition of her sporting achievements. Speaking on behalf of the Barba family, Evaggelia reminded attendees that words alone were not enough: athletes need money.