Despite lack of enthusiasm for non-Greek athletes, Athens performed well
Posted: Sunday August 29, 2004 8:43AM; Updated: Sunday August 29, 2004 11:21AM
We asked the Sports Illustrated writers who covered the XXVIII Olympiad to leave us with their indelible memory of the Games.
To borrow from former Arkansas basketball coach Nolan Richardson, the Olympics were 17 days of Hellas.
Not hell, Hellas. The Games actually were surpassingly pleasant -- better organized than advertised, secure but not oppressive, an altogether worthy symposium of sweat -- and Athens responded to Olympic visitors with outstretched hands, none of which had to be surgically removed from the pocket where you kept your wallet. The only outrageous gouging I personally witnessed was the finger a Kazakh wrestler kept sticking in the eyes of U.S. heavyweight wrestler Kerry McCoy. Athens was hot and dusty by day, vibrant and luminescent by night. If there were any pimples on the sunny face Greece presented to the world, they were camouflaged by the Clearasil of good will.
But the message the organizing committee kept pitching was: "Welcome home." Of course staging the Games of the XXVIII Olympiad in Greece represented an historical homecoming, but it also was grossly misleading. When you welcome people into your home, you defer to your guests. The Olympics guests -- not the tourists but the athletes from the 201 other National Olympic Committees represented in Athens -- were merely tolerated. With a few exceptions, there was a palpable sense of boredom in the stands when someone other than a Greek ran or wrestled or jumped or paddled. Perhaps it was the rows of empty seats at many venues that made these Games so flat, but the indifference seemed deeply rooted. The Greek spectators might have voted with their wallets by staying away, but the ones who did attend used their vocal cords selectively. There was none of the international spirit that infused Sydney, where even the beloved Aussies participants took a back seat to the world, and the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer, where tens of thousands stood for hours in numbing cold to cheer on all of those wacky cross-country skiers no matter what snowbound country the athletes called home. Athens lacked a sporting soul. It was like Los Angeles in 1984, with ruins.
The nadir appeared to be the men's 200 race last Thursday. With national hero Costas Kenteris a no-go following his merry roundelay with drug testers, the Olympic Stadium crowd -- chanting "Hell-as" and "Ken-ter-is" -- delayed the start of the race by several minutes. At first glance the gesture seemed as unsporting as it was ultimately futile, but we were corrected in a commentary by Antonis Karakousis in the English edition of the Kathimerini newspaper. He wrote: "The foreign media saw the disruption as a display of contempt, a nationalist outburst that prevents people from following rules and distinguishing good from bad. Such criticism is based on the Manichean perspective about good and evil -- an idea that dominates Western culture and rejects gray areas (as manifested in the chorus of ancient Greek theater)."
As soon as I finish handing out Olympic trinkets once I get home, I promise to look up "Manichean."