“This is the only thing that we can do. This is the only thing we are good at,” Greece’s Ekaterini Stefanidi told state broadcaster ERT right after she had won the gold in the women’s pole vault at the European Championships in Berlin on Thursday.
Stefanidi’s victory will not bring back the dead, nor undo the material damage and the disaster inflicted upon the environment in the devastating wildfires that ravaged eastern Attica on July 23. But, well, an athlete can offer a moment of exaltation, evoke a smile of emotion on our face, a smile that is a little bit more solid perhaps than other, ephemeral smiles.
“We can only hope to offer some joy to the people [affected],” said Stefanidi and Nikoleta Kyriakopoulou, who won the silver medal for Greece in the same event.
More Greek athletes have excelled in the past few days, generating some hope that tomorrow will be a better day: Miltiadis Tentoglou, Apostolos Christou, Kristian Gkolomeev, Stefanos Tsitsipas.
We went to bed with the names of the 93 people who lost their lives in Mati. We woke up admiring the athletic achievements of young people full of vigor, determination and persistent, painstaking effort. Our collective mood remains sour.
The fear of an unexpected, life-changing event remains ever present. We are ruled by a dysfunctional government which seems to blunder from one mistake to the next – its mistakes being our problems of course. The surprise of annulment (which can sometimes be tragic) is intensified by the apparent contingency in government policy, its complete lack of any planning or sense of accountability.
Sports, globalized sports, represent a pocket of excellence amid the country’s breakdown. And one question that emerges is: Can this country provide a context in which an individual can dedicate him or herself to what they are good at doing and become really good at it?
Stefanidi spoke with the measure of a person who has the capacity to assess and endlessly reassess their strength after hard work, after transcending their limits. Hers were the words of a person who knows the meaning of success and failure, the factors that can make the difference between the two, a person who can appreciate consistency, good organization, the existence of a system that works, allowing you to focus on your work without worrying that your efforts will go up in smoke.
Every country needs excellent role models, wherever they come from. Every country needs a government that is looking at people like these to lead the recovery effort.
If you want to attract these people you need to at least offer the expectation of a reward – not necessarily a financial one. A glimmer of hope in the middle of an ill-starred, dystopian summer.