Olive wreaths catch on

Despite its promise of Games on a «human scale,» Greece spent billions of dollars to host and protect athletes from more countries than ever in the history of the Olympics. Yet it added a note of ancient simplicity: Victors are crowned with olive wreaths, reviving a tradition from ancient Olympia, where the Games were born 27 centuries ago. The athletes’ double bow on the podium – one for the medal, one for the wreath – and victory photos of grinning winners with leaves dangling over their brow are now an Athens trademark. The simple reward, a world away from doping scandals and sponsor money, is a hit with the athletes. «It’s gone down very well, everyone has warmed to the idea,» Antonis Zaglagoutis, director of the medal award ceremonies at the Athens Olympics, said. «Some of the athletes are even wearing them in the Olympic Village.» At ancient Olympia in southern Greece, victors were crowned with the wreath, a symbol of peace and honor. The historian Herodotus wrote that when the Persian King Xerxes heard that Greeks competed for an olive wreath, he exclaimed, «Good heavens, what manner of men are these against whom we are brought to fight – men who contend with another, not for money, but for honor.» The branch, formed into a circle, was taken from a sacred grove in Olympia – near the site where the Olympic Flame is lit every two years for the modern Games. Today’s wreaths are taken from olive groves around Greece. Medalists in the marathon race – run along a legendary ancient course – will get a bit closer to history and be given branches from centuries-old olive trees from Crete. «We wanted a link to the past without being fixated on Greece’s ancient history,» Zaglagoutis said. «For me, this is the masterpiece of the Games.» Athletes are also handed a colorful floral bouquet made of an olive branch, roses and chrysanthemums, which represent the colors of the Greek countryside in spring. Organizers ordered 2,553 olive wreaths and bouquets for the Olympics and say that introducing this symbol – also the emblem of the Athens Games – is a reminder of what the spirit of sport should be about. At the 303 award ceremonies, medals, wreaths and bouquets are presented on a cushion by three women in traditional Greek costumes. Swimming medalists were greeted by women from Greek islands. «It’s something to take back home from the Games. It’s a very classy symbol of these Games and it really pays homage to the past,» said Chris Welner, a volunteer from the Canadian Olympic Commission. And ancient sportswear is creeping into modern fashion. Tourists can be seen strolling through Athens with wreaths on their heads, and olive branch broaches and tiaras are appearing in jewelry stores. Maria Yiayiannos, who runs a gallery in central Athens, said she is surprised by the interest in an exhibition of bronze displays of olive wreaths. «Greeks and tourists stop to take a look around the display and ask a question,» she said. «The response has been exceptional.»

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