Everyone in judo knows who the legend Ilias Iliadis is. He is Greece’s big pride who carried their flag during the 2008 Olympic opening ceremony. However, he has not always been Greek, but was born and raised in Georgia. He moved to Greece to go all-in on judo together with his mentor Nikos Iliadis. His achievements are impressive, with one Olympic gold and three World Championship gold medals. His Olympic gold medal was won in Athens in 2004 when he was only 17 years old, making him the youngest Olympic winner in judo ever. The win changed his life completely, but it has not been a path strewn with roses since then!
The Georgian Greek
We’ve been asking Ilias for an interview for a long time, and when we finally got the chance it turned into a long conversation. Even though he had to give his daughter a ride to school during the interview, he let the conversation continue in the car. We start from the beginning and ask about the living conditions in Georgia around the separation from the Soviet Union, the move to Greece, his name change and citizenship. “I was born in Georgia in 1986, and the country left the Soviet Union in 1991. It was tough times in Georgia back then. The economy was bad and it was tough for athletes. We trained in the cold, because there was no heating in the dojo, and we only had cold water. It was difficult.”
17 year old Ilias Iliadis wins Olympic gold 2004 on his home ground in Athens, Greece.
Ilias, who’s name back then was Jarji Zviadauri, describes himself as a bad boy in the young years. His parents decided that it was time for him to start practicing a sport, and his father suggested boxing. Ilias wasn’t impressed with boxing, but when he stepped his foot in a judo dojo on the other hand, he was amazed. “I saw 200 kids standing in one line, with only two trainers in front of them. They were completely quiet, no talking and no movement, just like in the army. Discipline is number one for me, and I felt right away that this sport is for me. I was 10 years old and I started training seriously from day one. Already then my goal was to win the Olympic Games. Everyone who trained there had the same dream, the dream to win the Olympics.”
”MY BLOOD IS GEORGIAN, BUT MY MIND IS GREEK”
Ilias’ family were friends with Nikos Iliadis, who became national judo coach in Greece in 2000. They agreed that young Ilias would move with him to Greece to go all-in on judo. In 2002, the Georgian boy Jarji got a new name and a new passport. He became Ilias Iliadis, Geece’s Olympic hope! We ask if he identifies himself more as Georgian or as Greek. “I’m born in Georgia, and you should never forget where you come from, that’s very important! I moved as a teenager and later on met the love of my life, my wife, in Greece. My daughter is born in Greece. My son is born in Greece. I won my Olympic gold medal in Greece. How do you think I feel? I am Ilias Iliadis. The greek people doesn’t care where I’m born or who I was before. My blood is Georgian, but my mind is Greek.”
Poto: International Judo Federation, IJF.
2004 started off well for Ilias. He was now competing for Greece and won the European Championship. A few months later the Olympic Games were arranged in its home country, and Ilias new home, Greece. He would turn 18 a few months later, but even though he was one of the youngest, he was one of the favorites to win the gold. “I was ready, I was 100% ready. I was young, but still European Champion, so everybody knew who I was. As I was on home ground I had a great support from the people. The success was 30% because of them and 70% because of me. I was incredibly motivated, and to be honest, it wouldn’t have mattered which country the competition was arranged in, I was ready to win.”
”I WAS SO PROUD, EXTREMELY PROUD. WITHOUT A DOUBT, ONE OF THE BEST MOMENTS OF MY LIFE!”
“My life changed from one day to the next. Suddenly, everybody knew who I was on the streets, everyone recognizes an Olympic champion. But most important was my wife. Before the competition she was still my girlfriend, and I told her that if I would win, we would get married. She laughed, said okay and sat down to watch. I won, we got married as agreed and now we have two kids! She was worth much more than the gold medal. Another consequence of the win was a big boom in Greek judo, and we now have many skilled judokas in the world ranking.”
Ilias Iliadis carried the Greek flag with pride during the opening of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
In the following Olympics (2008, Beijing), Ilias was honored for his achievement by being appointed Greece’s flag bearer. According to tradition, Greece always enters first in the parade, and thus he became the first athlete to march into the new National Stadium of Beijing, the Bird’s Nest. “Wow, it was incredible! It was a shock to me! I was in the gym when the Greek Federation’s president came running with a huge smile on his face. ‘They chose you, they all chose you! You will be the first to enter the Olympic Stadium!’ he said. My knees got week from the shock. I was so proud, extremely proud. Without a doubt, one of the best moments of my life!”
”IN THE 2008 OLYMPICS I COMPETED WITH ONE LEG”
To retire, or not retire
Result wise, the Beijing Olympics did not go well for Ilias, who got eliminated in the first round. The conditions were not optimal, as he was forced to compete with an injury. “I had just finished a tough randori session when my coach approached me and asked me to go another round with a young guy who looked up to me. You know, to be nice and give him some motivation. I didn’t really want to, but I couldn’t say no. When 30 seconds remained of the round, the guy did some crazy technique and my knee broke. In the 2008 Olympics I competed with one leg. I’ve had knee surgery six times in total. But my biggest challenge was the year after when I got a blood virus, which was life threatening. I was gone for six months, and required another six months to get back in shape.”
Photo: International Judo Federation, IJF.
When the 2012 Olympics were arranged in London, Ilias was one of the most experienced judokas and he managed to win a bronze medal. The 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro was thus his fourth and he was getting tired of competing. After being beaten by the Chinese judoka Cheng Xunzhao in the first round he told the people in a TV interview that it was his last competition ever. However, by the end of 2017 he made a comeback in an open weight competition in Marrakesh. “After Rio I was so tired. Tired of competing. 14 years of competing on the absolute top level. However, Marrakesh was a different type of competition, with open weight. If they arrange another one, I’m in. I want to show the younger generation that a 90 kg guy can beat a 150 kg guy. I want to motivate them, that’s why I train and stay active in judo. I want to see the next generation judokas grow!”
”IT’S ALL ABOUT TRAINING HARD, WITHOUT LIMITS AND MERCY”
Even if he doesn’t compete as much as he used to, Ilias is still training hard. He is known to have an incredible physique, and a photo that has led to many jaw drops is the one in which he stands next to Georgian judoka Beka Gviniashvili. They’re bare-chested with huge, pumped muscles. What is the secret to get such a physique? “There are no secrets, only hard training. When I competed the most I used to train three times per day, at 7 am, 11 am and 6 pm. Nowadays I train strength and conditioning every morning and judo three times a week. It’s all about training hard, without limits and mercy. It can never be too much training for me!”
Beka Gviniashvili and Ilias Iliadis, two world class judokas with Gerogian roots.
We end the interview with a discussion about the best judokas today, and throughout history. “I can’t say one judoka is the best, there are too many good ones. In heavyweight I’d say Teddy Riner and Guram Tushishvili. Varlam Liparteliani -100kg, Beka Gviniashvili -90kg, -81kg is too difficult to say, -73kg Shohei Ono, -66kg Georgii Zantaraia and in -60kg Naohisa Takato. I grew up watching videos of Toshihiko Koga, Tadahiro Nomura, Jimmy Pedro and other legends. But I can’t say who’s my favorite. Nomura is the best if you only look at the results, with three Olympic gold medals. My cousin Zurab Zviadauri was also very talented with beautiful judo. The best Swedish judoka is Marcus Nyman in my opinion. We’ve fought six times and won three bouts each!”
We thank Ilias Iliadis for his time and hope to see him on the tatami more times in the future!
Text: Pelle Axelsson