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Greece Is The Word: A Gander At Greek Figure Skating History

Ice rink in The National Gardens Of Athens, Christmas 2005. Photo courtesy Robert Wallace.

"Old things become new with the passage of time." - Nicostratus

Known for its hot summers and mild winters, Greece was home to one of the oldest civilizations in Europe. The ancient Greeks were renowned for their advances in art, science and culture more than two thousand years ago. It was also in Greece that the Olympic movement was born.

Owing to Greece's climate, ice skating didn't catch on in the same way it did in other European countries. Though there were ice factories in Athens, Salonika, Patras, Corfu, Cephalonia, Missolonghi, Zante (Zakynthos), Volo, Tripoli, Kalamata, Syra and Larissa during The Great War, they only operated for about half the year and mainly served the purpose of manufacturing ice to cool beer and pack sherbets.

Before the first ice rink in Greece was even built, the country had already made inroads into the figure skating world. Jimmy Demogines, the 1969 U.S. Junior Silver Medallist, earned the nickname "Zorba The Greek" because of his family background. Britons Diane Towler and Bernard Ford performed an Sirtaki-inspired free dance to great effect, winning no less than four World titles during the sixties. 

"Fantasy On Ice", a smaller-scale touring production starring Simone Grigorescu and Lenel and Kirk van den Berg, made its way to Greece in 1985. The show was set under a tent, in a white marble amphitheatre in the port city of Piraeus, near Attica overlooking the Acropolis. Both Toller Cranston and Robin Cousins had (as it turned out, luckily) turned down starring roles in the production. Not long after arriving, the event's promoter bolted for an airport with the money, leaving the skaters stranded. The city denied the organizers access to the rink, and the ice rink and set were kept under lock and key for weeks. 

Coincidentally, The Stadio Eirinis kai Filias (Peace and Friendship Stadium) in Piraeus was the first big Greek stadium to install an ice rink. It also opened in 1985 and was designed by the architectural firm Thymios Papagiannis and Associates. The Stadium hosted the first Greek Ice Hockey Championship in 1989. By the early nineties, the skating rink fell by the wayside as the Stadium was needed for other sports like basketball and track and field. As is often the case, when one rink closes, another one opens, and Greece was actually fortunate enough to have two ice rinks until 2001 when the rink in Moschato closed its doors. Two years later, the second rink in Athens was demolished and Greek skaters found themselves rinkless. While many skaters trained abroad, others had to put their skates on a shelf. Things were so dire in 2008 that a group of skaters from Marousi were training for the National Championships in a temporary rink covered by a tent in a parking lot. The situation has improved somewhat today, with rinks operating in both Athens and Oraiokastro, Thessaloniki.

For many years, skating in Greece was governed by the Hellenic Ice Sports Federation, which was founded in June 1986. It became a provisional ISU member in 1987 and a full member in 1991. In October 2011, long-time President and founder of the Hellenic Ice Sports Federation Christos Chatziathanassiou died suddenly. At the time of his death, a representative from the [Pegasus Kypseli] Athletic Club stated, "He left with the big complaint of the state's long-standing unjust behavior towards the Hellenic Ice Skating Federation and its activities, yet thanks to his great personal love for ice skating and his great personal sacrifices he was able to keep up the bar in the activities of the Federation, having of course the support of his faithful associates. It is a characteristic fact that the State has had a negative impact on its financial contribution to the Federation's sporting activities, such as the Pan-Hellenic Championships, National Teams, etc., which caused it a great deal of sadness." It was later claimed that the Hellenic Ice Sports Federation operated illegally for many years, mismanaging approximately three million dollars in state subsidies. The ISU dropped Greece like a hot potato for a time, before allowing the Hellenic Winter Sports Federation, Greece's reworked governing body for figure and speed skating, curling, ice hockey, skiing, luge, bobsled and skeleton to (re)join in 2015.

As for Greek coaches, there are a few important names to note. Katerina Papafotiou won the Greek women's title three consecutive times in the early nineties. She went on to serve as the National Coach of the Hellenic Ice Sports Federation for many years. Her coach was World Champion Vladimir Kovalev, who for many years worked with Greek skaters. Fellow Soviet Olympians Nina Zhuk and Konstantin Kokora also worked with Greek skaters.

Greece's first representative at the World Junior Championships was Vasya Houpis, who placed second to last in 1990. At the 1992 World Championships in Oakland, Elaine Asanakis and Mark Naylor made history as Greece's first entry at a senior ISU Championship. Naylor grew up in Hershey, Pennsylvania; Asanakis in Brooklyn, New York. Asanakis and Naylor trained at the University Of Delaware under Ron Ludington. Asanakis, the daughter of Greek immigrants, later represented Greece internationally with Joel McKeever and Alcuin Schulten. Interestingly, she and McKeever had once competed internationally together as fours skaters, representing America but skating with different partners. Unfortunately, Asanakis and McKeever failed to qualify for the 1998 Winter Olympic Games in Nagano, missing a berth at the qualifying competition in Vienna the autumn prior by just two spots.

Panagiotis Markouizos

In Prague in 1993, Harris Haita made history as the first singles skater from Greece to compete at the World Championships. The following year in Japan, Lefki Terzaki became the first Greek woman to compete at Worlds. At the 1998 World Championships in Lausanne, Ubavka Novakovic-Kytinoy became the first Greek judge at a major ISU Championship. She went on to become involved as an official in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Athens' Panagiotis Markouizos was one of the first Greek skaters to perform more than one triple jump consistently. Georgina Papavasiliou was the first Greek singles skater to make it past the qualifying rounds at Worlds. Papavasiliou, who was born in Scotland but had ties to Corfu, finished twenty-ninth in 2002.

Christa-Elizabeth Goulakos and Eric Neumann-Aubichon. Photo courtesy J. Barry Mittan.

Zeus Issariotis, the son of a Toronto tavern owner who grew up in the Greek village of Isari, near Athens, took the silver at the 2005 Copenhagen Trophy - the first medal for a Greek man internationally. He trained at the Cricket Club for a time under Canadian Champion S├ębastien Britten.
In 2007, Themistocles Leftheris became the first Greek American skater to win a senior medal at the U.S. Championships. The same year, Christa-Elizabeth Goulakos and Eric Neumann-Aubichon made history as the first Greek ice dancers to compete at Europeans and Worlds. They were both born in Canada but her family was from Greece. His former partner Alice Graham once skated with Andrew Poje. Goulakos and Neumann-Aubichon trained in Quebec with Chantal Lefebvre and Arseniy Markov. They weren't the only couple to represent Greece who didn't live there. From 2008 to 2010, pairs skaters Jessica Crenshaw and Chad Tsagris represented the country at the World Championships. She hailed from the United States; he from Canada. They were coached by Isabelle Brasseur and Rocky Marval.

Nikki Georgiadis, who represented Greece at the World Junior Championships with her fellow Canadian-born partner Graham Hockley, was the final torch bearer in Greece for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver. She had the honour to lighting the cauldron at the historic marble Panathenaic Stadium in Athens before handing the Olympic Flame to the Canadian organizers of those Games.

Over the years, many touring ice shows including the Russian All Stars and Disney On Ice have entertained Greek audiences. In 2011 and 2012, ANT1 even aired a Greek version of Torvill and Dean's "Dancing On Ice" competition. Unfortunately, the series was an unprecedented flop, with complaints about everything from the low-budget production to the fact that none of the judges or host really had much of a skating background.

Anna Chatziathanassiou and Maria Mastrogiannopoulou. Photos courtesy J. Barry Mittan.

Though Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron represented France in international competition, Papadakis' father hails from Korydallos, a suburb of Athens. This, of course, makes Papadakis the first figure skater of Greek heritage to win both an Olympic medal and a World title.

The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said, "Everything flows and nothing abides, everything gives way and nothing stays fixed." Though the history of Greek figure skating is relatively recent, who knows what the future will hold?

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of the figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating":