Greece’s capital basks in ‘Year of the Olive’

While 2004 is the Year of the Monkey, in future Olympic host Beijing, in Athens it is most definitely the Year of the Olive. As the Greek capital gears up for the return of the Olympics to their homeland from August 13 to 29, organizers are leaning heavily on the sturdy symbolism of the Mediterranean tree from its ancient roots to its peaceful branches. When Athens needed a logo for 2004 they surprised no one by choosing an impressionistic sketch of that old classic, the olive wreath. When the gray urban sprawl along the route of the modern marathon needed greening, there was no problem. Organizers announced plans to import thousands of mature olive trees to create a corridor of silvery green trunks to usher the runners to the finish line at the old Olympic stadium. When the time came to unveil the torch that will bear the Olympic flame around the world and back again, designers turned to the olive leaf for inspiration. But why the big fuss over the sweet and sour little berry? Part of the answer comes from the Bible. According to the book of Genesis, when Noah released a white dove from the ark the bird returned carrying an olive branch to signify the end of the great flood and deliverance from God’s wrath. Both the bird and the branch have been typecast ever since. According to historians, the wild olive wreath, or kotinos, was the highest honor that could be bestowed on a citizen. It was also the prize awarded to the winners in the ancient Olympics. Modern medalists at this August’s Games will get the usual gold, silver and bronze medals but they will also get the green garland of the kotinos in a nod to ancient tradition. That same heritage was used to good effect by millionaire Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, head of the Athens organizing committee and the woman who led the successful bid in 1997 to bring the Games back to Greece. During the bidding contest she treated International Olympic Committee (IOC) members who visited Athens to their own tree-planting ceremony and a little Greek mythology to explain the relationship between the olive and Athens. When the gods Poseidon and Athena clashed over whose name would be given to the new city in Attica, it was decided that the honor would go to the one who could offer the most precious gift to the people. According to the myth, Poseidon struck his trident into a rock and salt water began to flow. In turn, Athena thrust her spear into the ground and it transformed into an olive tree. The goddess of war and her fruitful tree were the clear winners and the Olympics are coming back to Athens not Poseidonia. The earliest coins from the city show the war-like Athena flanked by the owl, signifying wisdom, and by the olive wreath, for peace and freedom. While the tree is thought to originate in the Eastern Mediterranean, archaeologists maintain it was the Greeks who were first to cultivate it. It is known as the «tree of life» for its incredible endurance, and the small village of Pano Vouves, near Hania on the Greek island of Crete, claims the oldest olive tree in the world, said to have stood for 6,000 years. Researchers working on the volcanic island of Santorini have found fossilized olive trees estimated to be more than 60,000 years old. The hardy perennial has been a mainstay of the Greek economy since the eighth century BC and was dubbed «the tree that feeds the children» by the philosopher Sophocles. Its main cash crop, olive oil has been used for everything from Orthodox religious ceremonies and ancient Olympic liniment to modern-day health-fad diets. Visitors to the Games will have no trouble finding a genuine Greek olive grove. There are approximately 120 olive trees for every Greek in this country of 10 million inhabitants. Some of these olive groves have had to be sacrificed to build the new roads, transport hubs and venues that will service the millions of tourists expected this year. The wholesale tree cutting in some places would have been unthinkable in ancient times. Solon, the ruler of Athens from 639-559 BC, held the olive tree in such high esteem that anyone found guilty of uprooting more than three in one year was sentenced to death.