By Armen Zakarian
Armenian athletes bound for the upcoming Olympic Games in Athens received last words of encouragement from their country’s leaders on Monday, with Prime Minister Andranik Markarian warning jokingly that their poor performance would land him in hospital.
“You bear a lot of responsibility and obligations,” Markarian said at a farewell ceremony attended by athletes and government officials in charge of Armenia’s participation in the games which begin on Friday.
“All Armenia and the Diaspora will be closely watching you. Your victories would rejuvenate and give a boost to many people,” he said before issuing a stern, if humorous, admonition: “You also have to bear in mind that your every painful defeat would send some people, including myself, to hospital.”
Markarian’s words appeared to be a warning against a repeat of Armenia’s extremely poor performance at the previous Olympics held in Sydney four years ago. It materialized in only one bronze medal -- a far cry from the past Armenian contributions to Soviet Olympic triumphs which often included gold medals.
The Armenian delegation at the Athens games will be headed by Minister for Local Government Hovik Abrahamian and have 52 members. Only 18 of them are athletes. Some have already left for the Greek capital.
They will be competing in nine sports. That includes boxing, weight lifting and wrestling -- disciplines in which Armenians have done well in the past and are most likely to win something this time around. Armenians will also be participating in the athletics, swimming and tennis competitions.
The athletes had a separate meeting with President Robert Kocharian in the resort town of Dilijan at the weekend. Kocharian is due to fly to Athens later this month. According to Markarian, he will be present at some of the competitions and the closing ceremony of the biggest ever games in the world’s history.
Deputy Finance Minister Pavel Safarian said the Armenian government has allocated 88 million drams ($170,000) to finance the national team’s participation in the Olympics. He said financial contributions have also been made by some businessmen.
“Our team is in very high spirits this time,” the chairman of Armenia’s National Olympic Committee, Ishkhan Zakarian, assured Markarian. “I think they feel the responsibility of representing Armenia. Their recent performance gives us reason to believe that they can really compete for medals.”
The government has also backed up the patriotic rhetoric with financial incentives, promising a $40,000 reward for every Olympic title clinched by an athlete. Winners of silver and bronze medals will get $30,000 and $20,000 respectively.
(Photolur photo: Kocharian meeting with Olympic team athletes and officials.)