Surrounded by a group of Greek speaking friends, the hair on the back of my neck suddenly stood up as my friends rose as one and sang their hearts out to the Greek National Anthem. As the lads sang, se gnorzo ap thn opsi….. everyone in this packed London pub turned to watch us. It was the closing act of the wonderful London Games and I soon joined in with my friends. It was just days before I was due to leave London, suddenly a tear formed and dropped on my cheek. My Greece, my Ellada, which was the catalyst for this moment, these great Games. And I was sharing a moment in history with my Greek friends (and one Pakistani – British mate). I was proud of my heritage and my time in London, and standing there singing, badly in true karaoke style, was a moment in time that will never be forgotten.
A Pub full of Greek speakers
All the trouble that Greece has endured in recent times can always be swept aside by the panache of a special occasion. In that pub that night, Lazaridis, Dimitris, Alex, Charlie and Atif reminded me of what the Games can mean to many different people. I was fortunate enough to have worked and lived through the most successful Games in history, Sydney 2000. I experienced the surreal party atmosphere of the Athens Games with perhaps the greatest Opening Ceremony in history balanced by the biggest let down with the Kenderi-Thalou drug scandal; and lately I attended the exceptionally organised and brilliantly supported London 2012.
In between I to attended Paralympics in 2000 and 2004. Whilst this article isn’t focusing on these Games, let me tell you, that there are no more inspirational people on the planet than these phenomenal athletes. I count as one of my friends the Paraylmpic champion swimmer and inspiration to many people, Denise Beckwith. I haven’t seen her since the 2004 Games, much to my regret. Let me tell you, that a few minutes with Denise and you are truly blessed. The champion qualities and charisma of this woman are incredible. I hope now that I have returned to Sydney I will catch up with her again.
In 776 BC a group of athletes representing the ancient Greek city –states and kingdoms came together to enjoy a period of peace, friendship and sporting rivalry. Whether you were from Mytilene, Macedonia, Sicily or Cyprus, it didn’t matter as you were always welcome at the Games if you were part of the Greek speaking world, which were also a time to honour the Gods. Remember, no victory was complete unless it had been ‘ordained’ by a higher being. Perhaps our modern equivalent are the Oscars where winners ‘like to thank God,’ ironic when most of them probably haven’t been to church for a while.
What the ancient Greeks created at Olympia was extraordinary. There are stories of Hercules attending, Alexander the Great winning his race as everyone was too scared to beat him, nude wrestling and plenty of local wine flowing. The ancient Hellenic world was fragmented. No such concept as a unified Greece existed and wars were never ending. Yet the ancient Games were a great way to bring about peace and stability, if only for a few months. Athletes attended as friends, not as enemies, though when the Games ended the hostilities resumed.
The mythology that relates to the Games dictates that Hercules created the concept of a rectangular stadium and was present at the first event, deciding to call the gathering ‘Olympic,’ a name that has remained in place. The Games were an institution throughout antiquity, being held every 4 years during summer. It can be argued that the recent summer Games in London were in fact ‘winter’ given the poor weather and rain!
In 426 AD the medieval Byzantine Greek Emperor Theodosius II brought an end to the Games by ordering the destruction of ancient rituals.
I have a picture from 2004 with a group of about 10 of us sitting in a bar at the end of a great day of competition. For Maroulis, ‘it was about the spirit of being there as a volunteer, to give something back to my country as a volunteer.’ For my best friend George, ‘it was an experience like no other. I live in Japan and it was a surreal moment to be there.’ I will always remember 2004 for the wedding of his sister Angela to Spiro in Greece, and George tagged along on the ‘honeymoon’ to Athens to watch a few events. Leonie, Annette and myself laughed a long time about this as we travelled though Greece together.
My picture also featured Kostas, Nick, another Angela, Gregory, Theo and Matina. All of them had a unique Olympic experience. With Theo for example, one minute we were in Ios at a day club and the next we are at the Marousi Olympic stadium. And whilst it may not have equalled the Sydney Olympic Stadium or London, what it held there were the dreams of athletes and people alike. You could feel the tremendous atmosphere, the spirit of being in Athens. This is the birthplace of the modern Games (but not the ancient Olympiad). People cried when we pulled off the Opening Ceremony. I laughed when I noticed the lone builder walk out and hammer in one final bolt in the middle of the stadium. A reminder that Greece only just managed to pull off the Games. The typical male aristocracy (organising committee) played tavli I suspect as the Games’ organisation became a laughing stock. Sydney began whispering that they would host it again. Thankfully Gianna Angelopoulos- Daskalaki was allowed to return by the ‘geniuses’ who exiled her in the first place. She and her team stunned me and the world by staging a rather spectacular Games.
Like I did at Sydney, I went to 4 events. I went as an Australian, as I did in Sydney. I was proud of Thorpey and all of our representatives. ‘GOLD, GOLD, GOLD, GOLD to Australia….. the kangaroodes have done it again.’ I was proud to be there. But just as proud to see all the Greek flags flying off buildings, taxis, cars, cafes, everywhere. It was as patriotic as it was in Sydney. However, this outward display of national pride was strangely lacking in London. Athens no longer looked tired, she looked like a formidable sea of blue and white. This was the time I changed my opinion of Athens and fell in love with her. I use to think it was an ugly city. The Games and the incredible vibe changed my opinion. Every night we would sit in Plaka surrounded by thousands of people, singing, chanting, celebrating, loving. I was in love with this city and the Olympic Games.
As we all sat in the 1896 marble stadium to watch the marathon runners finish in front of us and with the Games at an end, I was with good friends, my girlfriend, my kombaro, my cousin. I felt that tear welling up. Being a macho man, and those days with abs no less, I couldn’t let it roll out. Instead we had a massive night, in true Greek fashion, to celebrate and with plenty of cola light and souvlakia. We watched the sun rise over the Acropolis as a whole city stayed out (as per usual) to enjoy a perfect night in summer.
Sydney 2000, Kenderis and my mate Dom
Standing across from the Olympic Village at what can only be described as the ‘astonishing achievement’ of Olympic Park, Dominic and I looked in awe at the athletes’ village. I was asked, ‘Billy, what do you think it’s like in there, what are they feeling?’ Little did I know that one year later I would become the Auburn Council representative of the village, helping to establish a Community Centre and to plan for the future of the village. If you ever visit Sydney, be sure to go to Newington as its now called. The village has every street named after an athlete. Stroll down Spyridon Louis or visit Dawn Fraser Avenue. It sits beside Haslams Creek and you can sense the history. The Games did a lot for Western Sydney and Newington is just one example. I worked at the Council which was the home of the Games as the community development dude. It was incredible to be there every day, it was a sense of wonderment to remain there after the Games too. The Community Centre I managed by the way, was the actual Media Centre for the Games.
Back to Dominic my mate who was living in London and still does. He took a special charter jet to make the Games. One night after work we hung out at Olympic Park with 400,000 thousand others. We were watching the 200 metres semi final replay on the massive screen. We noticed a Greek, Kostas Kenderis. He coasted to victory. We immediately suspect that this man would not do well in the final, as he was not exactly a household name. The final comes on. Kenderis by the 100 metres had established a lead. The crowd inside the stadium goes wild. Australians will always support an underdog. Then he gets to the finish, arms outstretched. HE WINS!!!!!!! Dom (who may be a Greek in disguise) and I jumped for joy and ran around the park. Hugging anyone we could. People thought we must have been lunatics. Why are 2 Aussies celebrating the Greek? What a moment in time. I met Kostas Kenderis on my island in 2002 and have a photo with him on a night out. In Lesbos he is still a hero. He was born there and the fastest ship on the island is known as the ‘Kenderis.’ We watched him train on the main road whenever he was on the island. No one can believe he did what he did in 2004 by missing the drugs test. Truly sad.
London, a spectacular you had to experience
Fast forward to London. I had planned to leave in 2011. Then I somehow stayed on for a girl, as you do. At the time I thought it was the best thing to do….. you never know what ‘might’ happen. In the end it didn’t last but I was grateful enough to go to a number of Olympic events instead with my old mate Dom. We had the time of our lives. I can only imagine how silly I would have been to have returned to Sydney without seeing the Games, and with Dom of all people. I hope he can join me in Rio 2016.
I can fondly recall spending a day with my buddy James around Olympic Park getting interviewed by international media. Initially they thought we were Jamaican (long Story). As it became known we hail from Australia, the Brasilians, then Italians, Westfield TV and Indian TV interviewed us. When an interviewer asked me to prove I was Greek, I promptly walked over to a girl dining and borrowed her plate to smash……
A real highlight of London was how well the host nation performed. Team GB. I copped a lot of stick from the Poms because they finally beat us at events. I hate that but I appreciate how good humoured they are. To see a country I adore and respect (GB) embrace the ideals of the Games is phenomenal. Due to the Games, a number of deprived Boroughs have had a make over. An emphasis has been made on youth and disadvantaged members of society. In Sydney, the greatest Games of all time, it was the environment and the transformation of an entire region. I’m not quite sure about Athens. Yes we received a brilliant infrastructure upgrade, but unlike Olympic Park in Sydney, I’m not sure how well the Olympic venues are being used. Olympic Park in Sydney by the way is the barometer of what a Games period can do for a city. It is a vibrant multi use area, 2 suburbs have essentially been created, its constantly busy, has vast amounts of park land, significant business usage and is very beautiful. Words can not do it justice.
Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Games, was spot on to recreate the ancient tradition. Being held every 4 years in different cities. It allows each host city to address issues that it may never have attended to. China showcased itself to the world, London once again demonstrated how well an entire population can support an historical event and it glorious artistic side. I expect Rio will highlight how far Latin America has come, as a powerhouse continent, not to mention the wonderful and exciting culture of Brasil that we across the world have come to adore. The modern Greeks wanted to keep the Games in Athens every 4 years. This would defeat the concept of true internationalism and the opportunity for the rest of the world to take in the architectural delight of a Barcelona or an Atlanta. Who can forget the hospitable way Seoul opened their hearts for athletes, most who had never been to Asia, or the excitement of going behind the Iron Curtin in Moscow in 1980?
I will provide you with one final little known fact. Athens held an interim, though unofficial, Games in 1906 and by all accounts was very successful with the Greeks finishing fourth at the Games. Australia competed at that event and placed 20th and like Greece has been to every modern Olympic Games.
If Hercules was still around today, perhaps he, like myself, would contemplate letting a tear roll down his cheek. For there is no better achievement than to bring people together to celebrate sport, culture, arts and architecture. Greece may be a lot of things, a financial basket case, a place for a tan perhaps, but it is the country which gave us the Games. Those Games have given joy to billions, and to me it made a macho man sensitive (geia thn Ellada mou).
Billy Cotsis, was born in Sydney with a Greek heritage and lived in London for 4.5 years.