The old greets the new at Olympia

Overcast skies and intermittent sprinkles did little to dampen the spirits of those who gathered here in the peaceful pine groves of ancient Olympia on Monday to attend some rather low-key ceremonies that accompanied the official lighting of the Olympic flame and the launch of the torch relay leading to the Salt Lake City Winter Games which will start on February 8. It was hard to imagine, early that misty morning, that anything of note was about to happen in this little town, nestled in a lushly wooded valley between the Ionian coastal lowlands and the rugged Peloponnesian interior, and now settling into early winter solitude, with shuttered restaurants and locals hanging about without the usual tourist trade to provide economic stimulus or humorous diversion. And within a few hours, as the deluge came to the valley, the out-of-towners, the screeching motorcades and the TV vans, were gone again. In-between was a ceremony longer on pageantry than spectacle, crowds without the crush, and a nice meeting of old and new that provided some quiet hope for both a world at war and an Olympic movement that many say has grown into a glitzy extravaganza. The flame-lighting ceremony itself may be contrived, but it is difficult to dismiss the significance of the place where it takes place. The modern Olympics, unlike their ancient forerunners, roam the world, with Games rarely held in the same city twice, and the flame that signifies their unity traces its origins each Olympiad back to these same ruins, from where the torch relay has begun since Innsbruck in 1964 for the Winter Games and for the Summer Games since Berlin in 1936. And the low skies on Monday may have prevented the traditional (if hardly ancient) concave mirror from doing its trick but they did not stop the dances and chants of the 22 young Greek women – priestesses for a day – in flowing costumes and theatrical poses, a clutch of politicians, and a marine band from doing their ceremonial best to send the flame on its way. Symbolism for a tough world Unlike so much else in the world of entertainment, the ceremony has actually become more modest over time. Once, not long ago, crowds gathered inside the archaeological site and on the grassy knoll of the ancient stadium itself, and were treated to a larger festival with human chains forming the Olympic rings and the like. Locals (like my hotel proprietor) actually carried the torch. Nowadays it’s less of a local production and the guardians of ancient heritage have even banned on-site crowds who are now relegated to the road high above with both sun and wind in their face and a regrettable camera-lens view. Still, the lack of pandering to the crowds has its virtues. At noon the flame was lit – or in this case, appeared – in the ruins of the Temple of Hera, as the robed priestesses made their way, accompanied by ancient instruments, to the old stadium. From there, the ceremony proceeded (on four wheels, alas) to a nearby little grove ringed with tall cypresses, where the Coubertin monument pays homage to the principal founder of the modern Games. Wreath-laying, speeches, anthems, and the entrance of the flame led to the lighting of the torch itself. Even the rain timed its entrance well, just as the flame made its exit. The roughly 90-minute ceremony, heavily symbolic even in normal times, assumed added significance, many of those present felt, because of the September 11 attacks on the USA and the subsequent world crisis and war on Afghanistan. Perhaps the very fact that a small, out-of-the-way town full of ruins is the customary gathering place, point of departure and metaphorical keeper of the flame is itself significant for life in a whirlwind world; it is a spiritual yet reassuringly earthy place. Hellenic Olympic Committee President Lambis Nikolaou spoke of the lit flame as the fundamental spiritual symbol of balance and harmony, while torch relay commission head George Halkidis spoke of today’s dramatic change and social events [that] make the need for inspiration and guidance… even more imperative. Meaning for Salt Lake This year’s ceremony sent the flame from the Old World to the New, a connection which was not lost on the visiting notables, among them Utah Governor Mike Leavitt and Mitt Romney, the president of the Salt Lake Olympics organizing committee, who a decade ago ran a gutsy but unsuccessful campaign to unseat perennial US Senator Edward Kennedy in Massachusetts. Now in a very different role, he spoke briefly with Kathimerini English Edition about his experiences in Olympia and his hopes for the upcoming Winter Games. He termed the ceremony quiet, symbolic and touching, which had very profound meaning to me personally. Romney noted expansively that the Olympics have always represented great sport and have always showcased athletic character, but today, he continued, is an affirmation of civilization – and of the family nature of humankind. On a more concrete subject, he added that after the September 11 attacks the Salt Lake organizers will be adding $30-40 million to the already substantial $270 million security budget and that an overflight ban will be in effect. And when asked what the Athens 2004 Games could learn from the upcoming Salt Lake City experience, he responded diplomatically saying, Salt Lake City has only to learn from Greece. And he noted that his most emotional moment came when the first runner, Fafalis, appeared, bedecked in the Salt Lake-designed uniform, holding the distinctive, icicle-shaped torch itself (which apparently never seemed to catch fire in trial runs). He saw this as the ultimate act of connecting all this [in Olympia] with all we’ve done. And as the sole dove was released, one of its white feathers floated down into the lap of the Utah governor. As Fafalis jogged the first few meters up and out of the little grove, torch and olive wreath held high in either hand, the heavens finally opened up and the VIP crowd quickly dispersed to the warmer confines of the nearby International Olympic Academy, a beautiful if slightly austere meeting place and training ground, for a buffet lunch. The torch wound its way to Mt. Parnassus before reaching Athens’s Panathenaic Stadium last evening. On December 3, the flame will be handed over to Salt Lake officials and flown to Atlanta where it will begin another long journey, with another kind of more contemporary symbolism, through Washington DC, Pennsylvania, and New York, sites of the Sept. 11 disasters, before making its way out west and even through Alaska before heading south again to Utah for the February 8 Winter Olympic opening ceremonies. The ceremony may have been nicely measured, but there is much to be said for speed too. Bringing up the rear in the press room and finally getting run out of the place as they were packing up, I had to brave the long walk down the endless driveway to the main road and into town, of course without an umbrella. But the gate at the now-deserted driveway entrance was padlocked. The other entrance was miles away, and it was pouring. In order to exit the grounds – from the main communications center for an international ceremony – and get back to town, your correspondent had to clamber over some large pipes, creep along a steep embankment, climb halfway up a tree, balance on top of a fence with wicked spikes and barbed wire, and leap through some branches down to the ground. And I always thought such impediments were designed to keep bad elements out, not keep slow writers in. Talk about going from the sublime to the ridiculous. At least now I can claim some familiarity with the sometimes miserable conditions those lonely torch runners have to endure – and, more happily, with the very special place from where they begin their symbolic relay.

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