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august 26, 2004 -> athens 2004 summer oympics: greece

“So who wants to go to Beijing for the 2008 Olympics?” 

I don't remember which night, or even where I asked the question; but all hands went up.  The Olympics are addictive.  I met a Polish-American who had attended every Olympics since 1968.  I stopped counting the number of Sydney 2000 or Atlanta 1996 T-shirts that I saw.  The Olympics combine the pinnacle of human athletic performance with the incredible buzz of being surrounded by thousands of people from all the countries in the world, cheering madly for their countrymen.  In a world where nationalism and patriotism have become dirty words, it was heartening to see Mexicans dancing and singing in the streets, handing out sombreros and small bottles of tequila, to celebrate – get this – a silver medal.  Winning is evidently not everything. 

We had a blast in Athens.  Together with my friend Barry (who we convinced to travel with us after our wedding) and our friends Matt, Mandy, Jimmy and Goo (a nickname of uncertain provenance) from Australia, we had a great, fun, and more than a little crazy group.  The Aussies had arranged accommodation on the nearby island of Aegina.  The island and house was superb, but the ferry schedule was not.  Most nights we would end up on the one o'clock ferry; once it was the incredibly grim six o'clock.  Of course, it wasn't enough for us to be tired and tipsy, we had to make sure that no one else slept by belting out vaguely nationalistic songs and trying to start a human wave on the upper deck. 

While the ticket prices for the events were actually cheaper than in Sydney, Athens had a problem filling seats.  In my opinion, the problem was not ticket prices, but accommodation rates.  Hotels and hostels had increased their prices four or five-fold during the Olympic period.  Very ordinary hotels were charging hundreds of euros a night.  I believe that potential visitors had seen the prices and decided not to attend.  It is also probable that the threat of a terrorist attack scared many people away.  This was bad for Greece, but good for us.  Barry came with no tickets, but was able to ‘scalp' tickets at every event, in some cases at less than face value. 

There were two obvious highlights.  The first was the Opening Ceremonies.  We had paid far more than we should have for the tickets.  We bought them almost a year ago, from a US ticket seller.  I was furious when I realized that we were only three rows from the top of the seating platform.  On each seat was a gift box that included a small light and a bell.  Then the stadium lights went off, and a shooting star fell from the heavens, setting aflame the Olympic rings that lay hidden beneath a thin film of water.  Half the spectators spontaneously activated their lights.  It was magical.  I never thought about the cost of the tickets again.  Over the next few hours we would watch a stunning spectacle of light, music, water, fire, and humanity.  When the Olympic torch was lit, a roar came up from the crowd that set my nerves tingling. 

While some people got tired of the very long ‘parade of nations' (when all the athletes enter the stadium), we loved it.  The people sitting around us could not figure us out.  I had a US flag wrapped around my waist.  Nori and I both had temporary US flag tattoos on our shoulders.  We raised a large US flag over our heads, and bellowed “USA! USA!” when our team walked into the arena.  So why were we cheering wildly for the teams from the Cook Islands, Mongolia, Uzbekistan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Australia, Hong Kong and Singapore? 

We had a bond with these countries: we had lived there or traveled there.  We felt that we were repaying the athletes for the amazing experiences that we had enjoyed in their countries.  And in many cases, no one else was cheering them on.  There was the small contingent from the Cook Islands – where I proposed to Nori – a few with the spears and grass skirts that we recognized from the “Dancer of the Year” competition.  We smiled at the long ‘dels' and pointed hats of the Mongolian team.  When the team from Vanuatu was announced, I saw quizzical looks on the faces around me – no one had ever heard of it before.  (We had spent a week there, while I was studying for a finance examination, and loved it.)  We clapped for the Mexicans, and the Mexican girl sitting beside us cheered for the US.  We sang “Jambo Bwana” (a Swahili song) when the Kenyan and Tanzanian teams walked past.  We clapped until our palms hurt and cheered until we were hoarse. 

The second highlight was Track and Field.  We already had tickets for two evenings, and Barry was able to get tickets at the entrance.  Together with our Australian friends, we watched literally dozens of finals: men's decathlon, women's pole vault, the men's 10,000-meter run, the women's 110-meter hurdles, and men's discus to name a few.  On both nights we had seats that were above the finish line for the running events.  At any one time, there are usually two to four events going on at once.  Our eyes scanned from an arcing javelin, to a leaping long jumper, to a high jumper begging the crowd to clap to psych him up.  When three American men swept the medals in the 400-meter run, Nori and I ran down to the railings and led the singing of the “Star Spangled Banner.”  It was an incredible, awesome feeling. 

The Athens Olympics must be counted as a tremendous success.  The venues were magnificent.  The organization was superb.  The transportation system (much of it new) was generally more than adequate (though some A/C on the Metro would have been appreciated.)  Spectators witnessed several new world records, and numerous Olympic records.  The volunteers were helpful and fun.  The souvenirs were excellent and extensive: including Athens 2004 shot glasses, mouse pads, sandals, baby strollers, backpacks, and thong underwear (just kidding.)  Most importantly, however, no one got blown up.  These were the first Olympics after September 11; the complexity and cost of the security arrangements to prevent terrorist attacks were considerable.  There were security cameras and police everywhere.  Even the titanic “Queen Mary 2” had special protection at the port of Piraeus – an inflatable barrier that encircled the luxury liner and resembled a gigantic link of blood sausages. 

The Greeks were tremendously proud of their accomplishment.  No one thought that they would make it.  The International Olympic Committee had scolded them several times about the delays in finishing venues and transportation systems.  Representatives of the Sydney Olympics had (quite cheekily) volunteered to host the Games a second time if Greece could not get its act together.  Greeks explained that this was just the ‘Greek way': putting things off until the last moment, but getting there in the end.  It must be a Modern Greek trait, because I cannot imagine the Ancient Greek philosophers conceiving their great ideas during midnight cram sessions. 

To see our first Olympics in Athens, the birthplace of the ancient Olympics, was wonderful.  To be there with so many great friends was phenomenal.  Anyone who thinks that the Olympics are just a really big sporting event is dead wrong.  It was our first Olympics, but it will not be our last.  Look for us in Beijing, 2008.

Scott

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