Legends of Judo: Ilias Iliadis, an Olympic champion aged 17

Legends of judo: Ilias Iliadis
Legends of judo: Ilias Iliadis

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Legends of judo: Ilias Iliadis 01:26

Story highlights

  • Ilias Iliadis is the youngest ever male Olympic judo champion
  • Born in Georgia, he is now Greece's most decorated judoka
  • Iliadis won two Olympic medals and three world titles

(CNN)Few reach the pinnacle of their sport at the age of 17. Fewer still do so having undertaken a journey quite like Ilias Iliadis.

Growing up in Georgia around the country's separation from the Soviet Union, his formative years were tough.
Back then, lured to judo by its discipline, the future Olympic champion was known as Jarji Zviadauri.
    Forced to train in the cold due to a lack of heating in the dojo, that didn't stop him dreaming. By the age of 10, the budding judoka's ambition to one day win gold on the grandest stage of all had already taken hold.
    Nobody could have predicted he'd fulfill his goals just seven years later, carrying the flag of another nation at the ancient home of the Games.
    A smiling Iliadis holds the gold medal at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games.

    Greece

    Fortunately young Jarji and his family were friends with Nikos Iliadis, national coach of the Greek judo team from 2000 to 2016.
    It was agreed that Nikos would adopt the talented youngster, honing his skills with a view to making a life out of judo.
    At the age of just 17, he became the youngest man ever to win gold in judo.
    A new passport, a new country, a new name. Step forward Ilias Iliadis.
    "You should never forget where you come from, that's very important," he says now, when asked which nation he identifies with. "My blood is Georgian but my mind is Greek."
    Iliadis took to his new settings quickly, defeating several more established names to win the 2004 European Championships in Bucharest.
    It meant the new kid on the block was already an Olympic contender before his 18th birthday, with the Athens Games just three months away.
    Some would have felt pressure stepping onto the tatami with the weight of an adopted nation on their shoulders, but Iliadis was "100% ready."

    A dream and vow fulfilled

    With victory in the half-middleweight category at a crowded Ano Liosia Olympic Hall, his life changed overnight. And not just because suddenly everyone recognized him on the streets of Greece.
    Iliadis celebrates making the half-middleweight (-81kg) judo final of the Athens 2004 Olympics.
    Illiadis's ippon against Ukraine's Roman Gontyuk in the gold medal showdown also had ramifications for his love life.
    Before the competition, Lia Grigoriadi had only been his girlfriend. Nothing if not confident, the budding judoka put it to her that they should marry if he was able to become Greece's first ever Olympic judo champion.
    The rest, of course, is history.
    "She was worth much more than the gold medal," said Iliadis.

    Flagbearer

    Four years later in Beijing, while the likes of Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps readied themselves for the 2008 Games opening ceremony, the first athlete to enter the Bird's Nest stadium was a grinning Georgian-Greek judoka.
    Iliadis recalls feeling weak at the knees when he was told he'd be Greece's flagbearer -- an honor that means leading not only one country, but the whole world's athletes, as per Olympic tradition.
    Unfortunately, his stay in the Chinese capital was somewhat short-lived -- Iliadis injuring his knee in randori (free practise) and subsequently exited the tournament after his first bout against former Sydney 2000 Olympic champion, Mark Huizinga.
    Iliadis stepped up to the middleweight category (-90kg) as he got older.
    He was no longer the precocious newcomer by the time London 2012 came around, but he wasn't ready to walk away yet.
    A narrow quarterfinal defeat to Russia's Kiril Denisov meant Iliadis wasn't able to reach the gold medal match, but he fought valiantly through the repechage to secure bronze -- dedicating it to the Greek people enduring financial hardship back home.
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    It was to be his last appearance of note on the Olympic stage -- Rio 2016 ending in disappointment -- but Iliadis continued to rack up numerous titles on the IJF World Tour, the highlight a third and final World Championship title in Chelyabinsk in 2014.
    In all, he has won more major honors on the IJF World Tour than all other Greek judoka put together.
    Ilias Iliadis -- a true legend of judo.