Tragic fallout: fight for life

Questions, disbelief follow critical injuries to judoka, boyfriend

Olympics

August 12, 2004|By Dan Mihalopoulos | Dan Mihalopoulos,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

NEA PHILADELPHIA, Greece - At her dojo in this Athens suburb, watched by a silver-gilt icon of the Virgin Mary and a portrait of judo's stern Japanese founder, Eleni Ioannou sweated four hours a day in pursuit of Olympic glory.

Despite the pressure of representing her country this month on home soil, the 20-year-old Greek heavyweight champion smiled almost constantly, her teammates and coach say. She often interrupted training sessions with horseplay, drawing reproaches from the coach and earning the nickname "Silly Eleni."

"I don't see how she could try to commit suicide," said Giorgos Bountakis, Ioannou's coach at the Nea Philadelphia Judo Club. "She was about to experience the best moments of her life. This whole thing is absolutely unreal."

In a modern Greek tragedy that only the likes of Aeschylus or Sophocles could invent, Ioannou fell early Saturday from the fourth-floor balcony of a suburban Athens apartment after a quarrel with her boyfriend.

Two days later, boyfriend Giorgos Chrisostomides leapt over the same balcony railing after police had questioned him about Ioannou's fall.

Authorities believe Ioannou jumped to the sloping driveway behind the concrete apartment block during a quarrel with Chrisostomides, a source in the Greek Ministry of Public Order said yesterday.

"He was jealous of her," the source said. "They were arguing because he did not want her to move into the Olympic Village."

The investigation remains open, and the case may only be resolved when Ioannou can speak to police.

That may never happen. Ioannou and Chrisostomides both are injured critically. Doctors give Ioannou practically no chance of survival, Bountakis said yesterday.

"Only a miracle can save her," the coach said, staring blankly at Ioannou's royal blue Olympic equipment bag, which sat unclaimed in the club office.

Teammates from the Greek women's judo team gathered at the Athens hospital where Ioannou remains in a coma to donate blood earlier this week. They will enter the Olympic Village without her today.

Displayed on the wall of the practice room where Ioannou trained here was a sheet of paper with Athens 2004 letterhead. The three Japanese characters representing judo's highest values appeared under the olive-branch logo of the Games.

At almost 6 feet tall and about 200 pounds, with long legs and strong hands, Ioannou had what judokas call "tai," the physical attributes necessary to triumph.

She could beat anyone at the club except for the biggest and best-trained male judokas. Her coach, a former member of the Greek national team, could no longer topple Ioannou.

As for "gi," the character representing skill and technique, Ioannou had learned to attack from the left side. This made it more difficult for opponents to defend her advances and made her game less dependent on brute strength.

Ioannou had moved out of her family's home about a year ago. She moved in with Chrisostomides, 24, and his grandparents in their apartment near her family's home in the Athens suburb of Nea Ionia.

Chrisostomides was jobless. Ioannou supported him in his recovery from drug addiction, Bountakis said.

The coach said he discouraged Ioannou from continuing her relationship with Chrisostomides after club members told him her boyfriend would bring trouble. She refused those pleas.

"He was jealous," said Elina Tabasi, another member of the Greek Olympic judo team who was Ioannou's roommate on road trips. "He would call her constantly when we were training [away from Athens].

Nonetheless, friends say, Ioannou always spoke of her boyfriend glowingly.

"They were very much in love," Tabasi said.

Chrisostomides vehemently denied pushing Ioannou over the balcony railing, his cousin and neighbor said.

"It was a little spat over who would get to play a computer game," Pavlos Michaelides, 21, said. "He was saying that if only Eleni could just talk, she would tell everyone that she jumped alone."

Michaelides said Chrisostomides's grandmother complained that police tried to pressure Chrisostomides into confessing and struck him repeatedly, a suggestions police denied.

"They were asking him the same questions again and again," Michaelides said. "They had questioned him two days in a row already, and they wanted him to go again when he tried to kill himself."

Chrisostomides was eating a bowl of corn flakes on the balcony, his cousin said, when he suddenly got up and propelled himself over the railing despite pleas from his grandparents.

A day earlier, relatives had restrained him from jumping when he threatened to go over the railing, yelling, "I'm coming to find you, Eleni."

His grandmother said she did not want to comment. "We are in a lot of pain," she said.

Ioannou would have been the first Olympian from the Nea Philadelphia Judo Club, founded in 1989. Her club teammates dealt this week with their grief as well as the demands of Olympians who are practicing at the facility during the games.

Entering the dojo, the Olympians walk past a photo of Ioannou and other successful club members.

She beams broadly as a medal hangs from her neck.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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