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Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 August, 2004, 00:21 GMT 01:21 UK
Olympic victors may be left wreathless
Matt Davis
By Matthew Davis
BBC News Online, Athens

Greece's revival of an ancient Olympic tradition is coming into conflict with the tight bio-security regulations of the modern age.

Kelly Holmes
Britain's Kelly Holmes should get her wreath back to Britain
The medal-winners' olive wreaths that are a defining image of the Athens Games have also caught the eye of customs officials around the world.

When Australia's victorious athletes step off the plane they will have to hand over their laurels so the plants can be blasted by gamma radiation.

Many other countries also have strict rules on imports to prevent pests contaminating flora and fauna.

Free for Olympians

New Zealand bans plants without special certification, while in the US and much of Europe, border guards will demand to inspect foreign vegetation, destroying anything untoward.

The Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service said the winners' wreaths would have to undergo a hi-tech fumigation process that normally takes six weeks and costs $60 (33).

"For the Olympic team we're going to do it for free - and we will post the laurels back to the athletes in about 21 days," an official said.

Georgina Evers-Swindell (left) and Caroline Evers-Swindell
Georgina and Caroline Evers-Swindell broke up their wreaths
"But if they don't declare them, there's a strong chance we will destroy the plants - we need to know everything that comes in."

More than 2,550 olive branches and garlands - comprising an olive branch, roses and chrysanthemums - were prepared for the Games.

However, New Zealand's gold medal winning rowers have already destroyed theirs.

Mindful of their country's plant ban, Caroline and Georgina Evers-Swindell broke up their wreath and handed pieces to supporters after their victory on Sunday.

Sacred grove

Organisers of the Athens 2004 medal ceremonies say the olive wreaths and garlands are going down well with the athletes, some of whom are even wearing them around the Olympic village.

And Julie Dunstan, of the Australian Olympic delegation, told BBC News Online: "All our winners say they are stoked to have them, it's a really nice touch. They aren't bothered about the wait."

At the ancient Games the wreaths were seen as a symbol of peace and honour. They were cut from a sacred grove in Olympia.

Today's wreaths were taken from olive groves all around Greece - though medallists in the marathon receive branches taken from centuries-old trees in Crete.

The hosts say they are an emblem that captures the spirit of the Olympics.

Hitler honour

But it is a sentiment that will cut no ice with those protecting the world's borders.

Mark Thurman, with the US Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said: "Any plant, whoever brings it in, must be noted on the declaration form.

"We have specialists available to visually inspect it. If there are any problems it would be destroyed."

Britain's Ministry of Agriculture said that "if it looked healthy it would be fine".

"Most plants are OK from Greece because it is in the EU," said an official.

The revival of the olive wreath tradition is not the first time that winning athletes have been feted with distinctive plant-life.

At the 1936 Berlin Games, Adolf Hitler presented winning athletes with oak tree seedlings, that many took home and planted as a living memento of their Olympic achievements.

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