Combustible emotions

These Olympics would have been less than perfect if the Greek people had not managed to break the tyranny of impeccable behavior that marked the first week of the Games. Defying all expectations, Athens was ready, the opening ceremony set a new standard for such events with its inspiration and perfect execution, the sports events were running along perfectly. Transportation was great. There were no strikes and no demonstrations. Even the weather behaved, with August pulling its punches and not reaching anywhere near the heat and mighty winds of other years. Athenian drivers, the unruliest of all Greeks, were conforming to new, stiffer traffic restrictions and were keeping out of designated Olympic lanes. In fact, where the Greeks were most noticeable was where they were absent, as in most of the seats in many stadiums during the first week. Those who were there, and those who could be seen flitting about the city, were like pale shadows of what our visitors expected. It was as if (like the normally exuberant American athletes who were suddenly subdued to avoid attracting attention) we were so well-behaved as to appear unnatural. The Stepford Greeks even cheered the American team at the opening ceremony on August 13. For our visitors and the world’s television viewers, this must have been most disconcerting and a little disappointing – a little like going to the jungle and not seeing any wild animals. On the one hand everyone was happy that they didn’t get eaten, but they must have also felt a little cheated after the breathless tales of other travelers and journalists. It was left to the Athenian taxi drivers to keep misbehaving. Maybe the temptation was too great for them to do otherwise as they found themselves in the middle of so many unwary customers. Most of them probably behaved far better than usual, sharing the pride of a city that was suddenly transformed for the pleasure of visitors and residents alike. But enough of them acted like sharks in the middle of a school of fat tuna, giving those who survived encounters with them something that they could proudly narrate to their grandchildren back home one day – like stories from a war. For the rest of our guests, though, they would go home with no (figurative) scars, with medals won only for sporting prowess and not bravery. It was like everyone was at a party but the host was acting like the butler, as if he was filling in for someone else. But suddenly, in a few swift, bold movements, the Greek spirit for drama burst through and took over the situation. And it happened with an intensity befitting the Olympic homecoming, a moment which put Greece and every Greek right in the center of the world’s stage. On the one hand, it was as if the Greeks, after making such an effort to get everything right in time for the Games in the face of endless negative press, and after seeing that all was indeed going superbly, decided it was time that they too kicked off their shoes and enjoyed the party. And then the sport began. On Saturday, August 21, one week into the Games, the crowd made its first starring appearance. The setting was perfect. Pyrros Dimas, the charismatic young ethnic Greek from Albania who had signaled the dawn of Greece’s athletic achievements with a gold medal in Barcelona in 1992, was waging his last battle in pursuit of an unprecedented fourth victory in four Olympiads. Now 33 years old and plagued by injuries and five operations, he went for gold in his very last try and, in slow motion, collapsed under 207.5 kilograms, falling backward onto the floor. He got up slowly, undid his laces, left his wrestling shoes a little to the right of the fallen weights and walked off the stage barefoot. It was the end of an era. He won bronze. A day earlier, Greece’s first medal of these Games, also bronze, had been tainted by claims that its winner, weightlifter Leonidas Sampanis, had been found with an abnormal level of testosterone, a banned hormone. On the morning of Dimas’s contest, a tearful Sampanis had sworn, on the lives of his two little children, that he had not taken any banned substance. This claim (which did not save him from being stripped of his medal) had turned public opinion firmly in his favor. In this light, Pyrros Dimas’s dramatic farewell after a noble battle set the scene for what happened at the medal ceremony that night. As he was crowned with an olive wreath and awarded the bronze medal, the crowd that had packed the hall erupted into chants and cheers. It hijacked the ceremony, forcing the silver and gold medal winners to wait a good five minutes before they too were crowned. But although Georgia’s George Asanidze (gold) and Belarus’s Andrei Rybakou (silver) at first seemed taken aback as tears welled up in Dimas’s eyes and he bowed his head and patted his heart in acknowledgement of the thanks he was being given, you could almost see the two who had beaten him wondering if they too would win such glory one day. Very few Greeks – in the hall and at home – must have had dry eyes. Dimas has been part of our lives over the past 12 years. But there was also a sense of rebellion, of reaction to the humiliation of Sampanis, who had won silver medals in the past two Games. Coming after the shock of the country’s two top sprinters – Costas Kenteris and Katerina Thanou – pulling out of the Games after missing a mandatory doping test, and the public’s anger at them, the Sampanis story and his tearful call to the public not to abandon him, began to create a backlash. By now the denials of those accused of using illegal substances and the claims of some news media that they were the victims of unnamed conspirators had begun to insinuate its way into the public debate. (The motorcycle crash that Kenteris and Thanou said they had been involved in may have won them scorn across the world, but despite increasing suspicion against them, it kept them in the hospital for five days and so spared them from being caught using illegal substances, if they did use them.) The display of adulation for Dimas seemed to carry that message as well: Enough. Hands off our heroes. Then, two days later, on Monday, another crowd picked up the baton from the weightlifting fans. But this time they jeered, they did not cheer. In a gymnastics event, they held up the horizontal bar final for about six minutes with boos and whistles after disagreeing with the low mark judges gave Russia’s Alexei Nemov. Finally, Nemov’s gestures to the crowd to calm down allowed the event to continue. The genie was out of the bottle: People power could be used not only to applaud but also to taunt and to deride. The awe that the Olympics invoke was being brought down to the individual level – people who felt strongly about something were expressing themselves, and this feeling grew and multiplied through the crowd until it took on a life of its own. By this time, several Greek athletes had come out in support of Kenteris and Thanou. In unique Greek style, what many athletes and journalists now appeared to be saying was that Kenteris and Thanou had been singled out while other athletes, especially Americans, had not been persecuted. This suggested that seeing as everyone uses dope, then the Greeks should get away with it too. This was not what most people thought, but it was certainly said loud and often by some. By Thursday night, several events had conspired to create an explosive situation in the Olympic Stadium. The unanimous outrage at Kenteris and Thanou had begun to erode. The way in which the IOC had stripped Sampanis of his medal (not giving him a three-month grace period that the Greeks had requested) and unverified reports that at least some American athletes had not been tested, encouraged the sense of victimization that we slip into at times of insecurity. The International Olympic Committee was seen as having been merciless and arrogant in dealing with the Greek athletes. What it did with others was not part of this equation, of course, because whenever we reaffirm our victim complex we turn our backs on the world. So there was a sense that it did not matter what the rest of the world did or saw, we had bowed our heads over Kenteris and Thanou and were not going to do so any more. Add to this that many of the people in the stadium on Thursday had bought their tickets months ago in the expectation that they would be watching Kenteris defend his title in the 200-meter sprint and you can begin to smell the combustible gases. What happened next, when the athletes came out for this final, can be understood even if it cannot be excused. The cheers for the absent Kenteris and the boos for the IOC and their hypocrisy over doping (according to various explanations given by some present) was, in reality, a distraction and an insult to the runners. Whatever rich range of feelings the Greeks who packed the stadium were trying to express, it was the runners who had to put up with the hysteria. After going to so much trouble to prepare Athens, running up what may be a generation’s worth of debt, working so hard to make the Olympic city a safe place in an unsafe world, after holding an impeccable and richly symbolic Games, it was absurd that the mock heroism of bad behavior for these five or six minutes should stain these Olympics. And yet it appeared the Kenteris-Thanou incident that had cast its grim shadow over the start of the Games would just keep getting darker and longer. But what the crowd destroys, the crowd can also build. Last night, when the three Americans who won gold, silver and bronze in what might have been Kenteris’s race were crowned and given their medals, the packed stadium clapped and cheered and stood for the winners’ national anthem. It almost made the previous night’s madness worthwhile. And we certainly gave everyone something to remember.

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