CULTURE

The game’s the thing… or is it?

When, around two years ago, documentary filmmaker Valerie Kontakos began filming the preparations of the Greek baseball Olympic team leading up to the Games, she had no idea of the turn events would take nor of the complexity of the story that she was tackling. Back then it seemed like a light, fun project – the Greek version of the Jamaican bobsled team – that she came across rather by chance. A second-generation Greek American who, at the time, had moved with her family from New York to Athens, Kontakos was actually in search of a little league team for her two sons, when she unexpectedly came across Greek players practicing baseball in an Athens field. That so many committed players of a primarily US game existed in Greece piqued her curiosity and she started filming them while they were training. When the fledgling Hellenic Baseball Federation (it was founded in 1997) decided that Greece would compete in the Olympics baseball contests, there was no national Greek baseball team to participate in the Olympics. The federation turned to those amateur players for help and picked some of the best to be trained for the Olympics. Kontakos filmed the entire process from the beginning and was there to watch developments as Greek-American players of the diaspora were, in the process, also drafted for help. Just a few days ago, two of the Greek-American players of the team tested positive for banned substances and were withdrawn from the game. The players’ violation hints at the pressure placed on athletes to deliver the best performance. In large contests such as the Olympics, sport is after all designed as a spectacle and therefore a profit-making business. Does the pressure to win overshadow everything else, does it prevail over the Olympic spirit, the sheer joy of sport? Although Kontakos has still not filmed this last incident, nor does she address doping or the role of sponsors in the Games, the issue of priorities is brought up again and again in her documentary and viewed from various angles. In «Who’s on First,» the title of her film, baseball is really only the storyline: Much more than that, this is a film that gradually immerses the viewer in much broader issues related to identity, the nature of big sports events, nationality and conflict while also putting across a very human story about the tensions that developed within the team, a profile of the athletes, their hopes and disappointments. The idea was not conceived beforehand. It all evolved as events unfolded and Kontakos was there to record them. A highly dramatic event occurred in the interim: Rob Derksen, who managed the team and scouted Greek-American players in the US died in early summer. A project that had seemed light and pleasant developed into a story of successive tensions. A major conflict arises between the Greek and Greek-American players. The story goes back to when the Greek federation decided that in order build a strong team, players of the Greek diaspora ought to be drafted. As an incentive for these players, the Greek government agreed with the IOC to issue a Greek passport to any athlete of the Greek diaspora (at least one Greek grandparent was the condition) and also to waive their military service. In 2001, Greek-American businessman Peter Angelos, owner of the major league baseball team the Baltimore Orioles, was asked to help. Angelos used all his available resources and his own money to create the most competitive team. He asked Baltimore Orioles scout Rob Derksen to find high-caliber, Greek-American players. A few months before the Olympics, the federation changed its initial plans for a team that would mainly consist of Greek players. Of the 13 players that were trained to participate in the national team, only two were selected. Banking on the experience of the Greek-American players, the federation decided on a team that was mostly Greek-American, thus shattering the hopes and enthusiasm of the Greek players and causing the resignation of the Greek coach Dimitris Gousios. Where does one draw the line? Is winning more important than the encouragement and acknowledgement that was due to the Greek players, not just for their hard work but also for helping establish an unknown sport in this country? But seen from another angle, isn’t the participation of the Greek-American players a symbolic expression of appreciation for the community of the Greek diaspora, a way of strengthening their sense of Greek nationality? «In a way, everybody is right. The Greeks are right because they deserve to be on the team not just because they are working here but because this is a Greek team. And then you hear that the Greeks only like having winners – so winning becomes important,» Kontakos said. «I think that if the Greek players had not been misled from the beginning, they would have been OK with it. As one of the Greek players said, ‘They should have just been up front and clear with us about not playing and we would have used this opportunity to train and learn as much as we could about this sport.’ The Greek players were very realistic about the fact that they are not as good as the Greek-American players, although they were constantly improving. The problem is that all the time they were training, they were misinformed. They were really made to believe that they had a chance to be the Olympic team, and now I think that they feel abandoned and disillusioned. I really feel bad for them,» Kontakos said. «Who’s on First» raises an issue of priorities, that of winning over contesting. It considers the role of sports in our society, the extent to which the players’ common nationality affects the team spirit, the hugely profit-making business that sports is. In the end, who is the real winner? Is it the athlete with major sponsorship contracts, living under the pressure to win? By going behind the scenes, Kontakos’s documentary raises thorny issues and makes the viewer think about values: the values of sport as well as human values. It also tells a very moving story and reveals the vulnerable side of an entire world that most of us only perceive through the prevalent culture of spectacle and stardom. The Greek baseball team is playing against the Chinese-Taipei team today and the Canadian team tomorrow. Specialized in documentaries Valerie Kontakos has been a New York-based, independent documentary filmmaker for the past 20 years. Her work has been aired on PBS and at various international festivals, including, recently, the Thessaloniki Film Festival. Kontakos’s documentaries address subjects related to the arts and social issues. «Who’s on First,» which is her latest project, is a One Art (US) – Argonauts (GR) co-production and will be released in late fall.