Monday, July 05, 2004


Year after year, there was always a kid in the playground who was uncool. He was either nerdy, smelly, not good at sport or just generally unpleasant to be around. On occasion, said kid would try to weasel his way into the cooler kids’ good graces by making them offerings of chips, coke or lollies from the canteen, accompanied by the usual question: Will you be my friend? The stock response then was to accept the food offering, punch the hapless kid in the stomach and steal the whole packet of chips as a lesson that money just cannot buy friends. The law of the playground is replete with similar lessons in moral justice.
And yet history is strewn with examples of weaker parties of diminished leverage power reverting to their doomed childhood tactics in moments of extreme danger. Take for example the Persian invasion of the Balkans. When Darius the Mede stood at the Hellespont and ordered his emissaries to demand of the Greeks that they provide him with gifts of earth and water (the ancient equivalent of coke and chips) in submission, the Macedonians immediately complied. The Persians were now their friends, which meant that the Macedonians had the distinct privilege of allowing the Persians to pillage their country and use it as a base for operations against the unservile, freedom-loving Greeks further south (the equivalent of the playground punch in the guts). Happily, those virile, friendless Greeks were too busy defending a glorious way of life to need to ‘buy’ friends and indeed, spent the next hundred years proving this to the Persians by emulating their friendship tactics and destroying the Persian civilisation.
Sadly, it appears that old habits die hard. A large portion of the foreign policy of the Byzantine Empire was predicated upon the need to ‘buy’ friends among the barbarian tribes that fringed the Empire. Unfortunately, the vast amounts of gold and jewels that left the imperial treasury for the felt tents of the khans of the Petchenegs, Cumans or the krals of the Bulgars and Slavs did little to fend off the inevitable ‘punch in the guts.’ Every so often, barbarian raiders, well-equipped with Byzantine gold would swoop down into the Empire and wreak havoc. Indeed, the story of the Empire is of a glorious but embattled state gradually being whittled away by those who it tried to buy off as friends.
Alexius Komnenos tried to ‘buy’ the friendship of the Pope and the western Europeans. When however he ran out of funds, they sacked Constantinople, devastated the Empire and caused its terminal decline. Ioannis Palaiologos also tried to ‘buy’ Papal friendship by offering submission to the Papal throne. Thankfully, St Mark of Ephesus and others like him were able to nip these manifestations of playground servility in the bud. Byzantine gold also was not enough to save Constantinople from its feudal overlord and friend, Mehmet II the Conqueror. Quite bored with receiving the servile chip-offerings from his cringing Greek vassals and bent on world playground domination, it was he that finally put an end to playgroundism by conquering the eternal city in 1453.
It is a testament to the concept of continuity of the Greek spirit throughout the ages that aspects of the Greek culture remain unaltered from days ancient. It appears that playgroundism is still extant within us, even in such far-flung corners of the globe as the Antipodes. How else to explain the disturbing news that the Greeks of Sydney and Brisbane have raised the sum of $185,000.00 in order to fund the Australian Olympic Team’s Athens Games?
It is worthwhile to place this singular activity in its context. Throughout the course of the past year, the Australian media has indulged in a frenzy of denigration of Greece, Greeks and the Greek Olympic effort. The Australian government has issued an unjustifiably severe travel warning for Greece. Some Australian Olympic Athletes have joined the fray by criticising Greek facilities or musing publicly about ‘what the food would be like’ and we, in playgroundic “will you be my friend” style are attempting to buy goodwill from a hostile recipient.
As Greek-Australians, it is admirable that we seek to be a bridge between both cultures and promote such good-will. If anything, it shows how committed to Australia we really are. However, the effort is misconceived. Olympic athletes receive millions of dollars of funding from governmental and corporate entities alike. They do not need the paltry hundred thousand we offer them in exchange for a friendship that will not be granted to us. It is sad that while other ethnic and community organisations do not donate to what is ostensibly a government affair, that we feel obliged to do so in the vain hope that the image of Greece in Australia will change.
Instead, if the Greek community wished to make a difference to Australian sport, it could better apply that money to promoting and assisting young Greek-Australian athletes with promise to reach the heights of their potential. They could assist in organising and funding games such as SAE’s Elliniada Games which bring Greek-Australians closer together and celebrate Australian sport. In our day and age, it is not easy to raise money for ‘Greek’ purposes. One would think that given the state of our community, that other activities, rather than face-saving would be given priority, such as aged-care and education. Unfortunately, these are not glamorous, nor easily boasted about.
The Greeks of northern Australia have unwittingly emulated the example of their ancient northern Greek counterparts. It remains to be seen whether the Greeks of southern Australia, true to their ancient counterparts’ example will resist the temptation, and like those counterparts, run the a lonely marathon for pure existence.


First published in NKEE on 5 July 2004