There’s a world of interest in these Games

Once, long ago, on a family vacation, we put up at a very expensive hotel, out of necessity rather than choice. My father, a good sport but a renowned skinflint (and quite proud of it), sat down and figured out the cost of our two rooms – per hour. We were frequently reminded of the tally, only partly in humor («Better get a good sleep at these prices!»), and he never heard the end of it afterward for missing the fun. It left a curious mark, and a lesson: There’s a time for counting your costs, and a time for easing off and taking it all in. As public Greece continues to fret about the Games’ rising cost (now up to 6 billion euros), the country is doing its best to downplay the grand event building toward August and to play up its (many) teething problems, which admittedly are hard to avoid. Yet elsewhere, people from all walks of life have been showing enthusiasm for Greece’s Olympic summer with a genuineness that all the drug scandals, security jitters and preening celebrities in the world can’t stifle. The ongoing torch relay is one sign of this; another is a lower-key Canadian initiative for the Paralympics. Both are mere drops in an ocean of human activity, yet affect those who care to look. Greece on the road Many find it hard to think about the Olympic torch relay, a traveling show far removed from either its simple, democratic modern origins or its ancient forerunners, without turning either schmaltzy or dismissive. In fact, it has been surprisingly easy, in Greece at least, not to think about it at all. Perhaps this is due to Olympics fatigue, or the fact that the flame has already been here and is coming back soon. Yet something extraordinary has been happening. The flame’s arrival has brought an outpouring of enthusiasm in city after city, along with interest in Greece and good faith for a successful Games in August. While we here keep up our banter of bicker about the summer’s bothersome details, others are noisily going bonkers over the coming Olympics. Greece has served up an international menu of pre-Games mezedhes, the world is gobbling up the platter – and the cooks are falling asleep in the national kitchen. Australians turned out in force on its first stop, during a brilliant sunrise sendoff. Formal ceremonies and big turnouts marked its tour around East Asia. In India, huge mobs – by some accounts numbering up to a million people – jammed city squares and even disrupted the route as the flame made its first-ever stop in the world’s most populous democracy. The flame also made its first-ever stops in Africa (Egypt, South Africa) and South America where, in Brazil, the great Pele carried the torch among vast throngs. Here was this world-famous personality, tears in his eyes as he carried the torch into the stadium. Never an Olympian (Pele turned professional early, when pros were banned from the Games), it was a clearly a great moment in a memorable life. In Mexico City, the flame was routed through a square where student protesters were shot before the 1968 Games opened. Ana Guevara, a world champion sprinter and 400-meter favorite for Athens, was supposed to run but the crowd was so heavy she couldn’t even get off the bus to do it – and this in a driving rainstorm. One who did was a 93-year-old master’s sprint champion, a woman who took up running at the age of 80. In Los Angeles, even the film-star runners were awed; Tom Cruise described it as «indescribable,» while Sylvester Stallone, an on-screen boxer, gushed: «This is the proudest moment of my life… I just hope I can live up to what this flame represents, which is honor, dignity, and a never-say-die spirit.» After passing through St Louis and Atlanta, it made a splashy stop in New York, a victim in 2001 but an Olympic hopeful for 2012, where hordes turned out in Times Square (a place where the profane far outweighs the sacred) and, more decorously, at the United Nations plaza. After stopping in Montreal, 1976 site, the flame returned to Europe, where many Belgians learned that their small country had once been an Olympics host as well, in 1920. After visiting other Olympic cities, it will come to Cyprus and then Greece early next month. It may have been a security and planning headache but this world relay has brought a taste of the Olympics to many new (and old) places and given many people a brief thrill. It would be good for our perspective if more people here noticed this show of unbridled good will, and didn’t get too obsessed about the occasional mean-spirited media dispatch. The world on wheels Another chain of cooperation was on display Tuesday evening at a stifling but enthusiastic gym in Athens, to mark a Paralympics initiative. The Canadian Embassy, some Canadian and Greek companies, and the Municipality of Athens have banded together to arrange for the donation of 16 wheelchairs to Greek basketballers hoping to make their national Paralympics team. Every little bit helps, was the unspoken message of this event, which was designed to raise public awareness about people with disabilities and to promote sport for all. Athens Mayor Dora Bakoyannis, whose office has addressed some important but thankless issues, such as helping the disabled and animal protection, was on hand, along with Canadian Ambassador Philip Somerville, who described the embassy’s role as a «catalyst.» Four companies contributed funds: Michaniki SA, SCF International Consulting Group, Medinn EPE, and Ellis Don Construction SA. The chairs were made by Sunrise Medical Canada, in Toronto. It’s not only the Greek government that’s having trouble counting its costs; nobody seemed able to say what the exact price was, though apparently a good wheelchair for athletes runs around 3,000 euros, closer to 2,000 with a discount. There are only a half-dozen or so wheelchair basketball teams around Greece, three in Athens, so many of these players will be able to put on a better home-team show in September. A brief, 10-minute game was staged, mixing «real» players with outclassed media figures, along with a (very cramped) Panayiotas Fasoulas, a former star, trying out his game without legs. It was revealing to see real players spin, sprint, and outmaneuver the healthy-limbed rest. The world looks and feels very different when you’re strapped into a wheelchair, I discovered later, even if it’s custom-made, light as a feather, and turns like a charm. And the game is a wholly different challenge when you’re twice the distance from the basket, and everything is dependent on upper-body strength. Even shooting a simple lay-up requires a mighty heave, and just try dribbling the ball while both hands are busy turning the wheels. Many would benefit from attending a Paralympic event or two this summer – learning about other people’s world while appreciating our own more. And other, quiet initiatives go on too. One is showing up in your pocket, as the European Central Bank authorized Greece to mint special Olympics coins without asking anything in return. There’s a lot of good will out there; the world isn’t simply waiting for Greece to trip up.