Monday, January 28, 2008


“Tennis is a perfect combination of violent action taking place in an atmosphere of total tranquility” Billy Jean King.
Just how effective the Greek and/or Cypriot community is in promoting its interests within the mainstream community in Australia can be evidenced by the singular fact that while for over thirty years, thousands of its members have made the annual slog down to Parliament House in order to seek “Justice for Cyprus,” they have failed to have the slightest impact upon anyone other than a few politicians currying for a few extra votes at election time.
Conversely, Cypriot tennis superstar Marcos Baghdatis stands up at a private party organized for him by his adoring fans, sings the Greek National Anthem and proclaims: «Έξω οι Τούρκοι από την Κύπρο,» and all of a sudden, Cyprus is on the front page of all the major newspapers. I know who I would employ as my PR manager.
Certaintly not Marcos. For in the lead-up to his tennis match with blonde, blue-eyed Aussie darling Lleyton Hewitt, within whose context the details of Marcos’ surprisingly nerdy private life have emerged, all of a sudden, this most popular tennis player has, at least in the estimation of ‘The Age’ reporter Larissa Dubecki “tarnished his halo,” while other, less tactful Australian members of the media are overtly crying ‘racism’ and fuelling the fans of ethnic tension by fossicking for suitably contentious comments by members of the Turkish Cypriot Community in Australia.
Would it be worthwhile to point out to the brewers of such inflammatory and absurd hyperbole that Marcos Baghdatis is not alone in expressing an aspiration that the illegal occupation of northern Cyprus by troops of the Turkish Republic is ended and that in fact, his pious hope is supported by tens of United Nations Resolutions? Most probably not. For Marcos Baghdatis is not the U.N. He is a tennis player, who, in expressing political convictions, has unwittingly transgressed upon hallowed taboo ground within the Anglo-Saxon deification of ‘Sport.’ That this taboo exists across the board, but especially in tennis, the quintessential gentleman’s game, is evidenced by Andre Agassi who once observed that: “It’s shocking how little there is to do in tennis when you’re just thinking about nothing except winning every point.” This essentially means that in order to be idolized and worshipped by the crowd, the gods of tennis cannot condescend to deal with earthly, profane matters such as politics or world affairs. For these gods are denizens of a much higher, exhalted plane of existence. In their Olympian court, they feast upon the ambrosia of physical excellence and the nectar of determination, regulated by the Titans of fair play. It is their ascetic devotion to their craft and its prize-money, to the exclusion of all other mundane and worldly things, that inspires their devotees and ensures their cult following. Marcos’s condescension into the corporeal world of ethnic conflict has truly tarnished his halo, for he is now naught but a fallen angel of that ethereal world.
Marcos is also to be blamed for another Olympian transgression. The gods of Tennis, eternal and unchanging in their various manifestations, are not only without worldly care but also devoid of nationality. When they do take on corporeal form, they adopt acceptable clean, crisp Anglo-Saxon/Western European modes of behaviour, in the interests of good sportsmanship, product endorsement and sound dental hygiene. At the minute that they assert some type of attachment to a terrestrial ethnicity, they go from being acclaimed as the ‘Scud,’ for example, to being denigrated as the ‘Poo.’
Marco’s entry into the tennis world was a cause of the creation of a significant body of fans who attend the Australian Open to flock to it in droves, not to worship his supernatural sporting abilities but rather, to revel in his terrestrial nationality. This is therefore, a double transgression. From the early part of the twentieth century, when government legislation made it illegal for Greek newspapers to be printed without an Australian translation of their article printed alongside to reassure a paranoid public that Greek migrants were law-abiding citizens, there has always been, as Vassilacopoulos and Nicolacopoulou, in their groundbreaking study: ‘From Foreigners to Citizens: Greek Migrants and Social Change in White Australia 1897 - 2000,” a presumption that non-British-Australians are culturally and politically subversive. As a corollary, any autonomous public displays they may make of their cultural ethnicity, (government-sanctioned ones that ‘prove’ the success of multiculturalism excepting), are also presumed to be potentially subversive. The difficulties faced by the community from the Shrine of Remembrance Trustees in organising the annual National Day march and those faced by the Church in attempting to hold the annual blessing of the waters Theophaneia at Station Pier, by the relevant authorities are cases in point.
Invariably, such cultural manifestations as are permitted, are generally so permitted, as long as they remain within the ethnic ghetto. The showpiece of the Greek Community in Melbourne, for example, the Antipodes Festival, is attended by a vast majority of Greeks, a few other curious members of other ethnic groups and only a slight sprinkling of culturally enlightened British-Australians. This is a festival condoned as a way of containing our own feelings about our ethnic identity within our community and allowing them to spill over into the mainstream, where they may challenge assumptions about the British-Australian dominance over and mediation of ‘Multi-Cultural Australia.’
Thus, the presence of ‘Greeks’ being ‘Greek’ (as soon as you hold up a Greek flag and assert your cultural identity as that of a Greek, you automatically lose the right to an Australian identity, at least in the eyes of the reporting media,) at the tennis signifies an unprecedented and threatening intrusion of ethnics from the ghetto of their own activities, into a British-Australian domain. All of a sudden, fans are present not to enjoy the tennis, but the fact that they culturally identify with one of the players and to revel in that fact. Inevitably, such cultural manifestations in a domain where society has decreed they do not belong, will invariably be deemed as subversive (after all, they do not pay homage to the dominant culture - a condition precedent in society’s eyes for their continued toleration and existence), even when these are in effect, benign at best and at worst, scatological and rather silly.
If we compare and contrast the behaviour and treatment of the drunken denizens of Bay 13 at the cricket, and the loud and colourful Swedish tennis fans of yore, with those hapless fans who were subjected to a pepper spraying by fidgety, trigger-happy members of the police force at the slightest of ‘provocations’, clearly intimidated by overt displays of the Greek ethnicity and thus, treating these as subversive, the difference is clear. As fellow descendants of Vikings, there is a cultural affinity with the Swedes, as there is with the British conscripts of the Barmy Army. Their antics, though verging on the annoying and often, the downright dangerous, are considered an innocent bit of fun - after all, going bezerk is a hallowed Viking custom. The public expressions of those persons born in Australia with a Greek cultural affinity, whether these include attempts to fly ‘ethnic’ flags at football matches or chanting in Greek at the tennis, are in contrast, not to be considered in similar jocular vein. They are alien, dangerous and must be punished, so that they are relegated back to their properly appointed sphere, the ethnic ghetto, where they will not raise their perniciously foreign head to vex British-Australian custom ever again.
As ‘subversives’ by virtue of our own ethnicity and our own almost unique hysterical need to assert our ethnic identity in the public sphere, as if to reassure ourselves constantly that we exist in our preferred hypostasis, we ought to be wary of the conventional parameters in which such assertions are made. Sympathy and understanding for cultural diversity is not gained by the immature bleating of expletives in public fora, nor are sporting matches the appropriate places to agitate political issues, in any culture or circumstance. A good deal of circumspection is required if we are to address the ontopathology of a society that, according to Vassilacopoulos and Nicolacopoulou, seeks to legitimise its dispossession of this land from its original inhabitants, by culturally and politically dominating the peoples it has ‘allowed’ to enter it.
This notwithstanding, the media hysteria over our own Olympian’s predilection for politicizing what is truly a righteous cause in a private setting, can only be viewed as a concerted, racist attempt to discredit the stock of this popular athlete, in the lead up to his vanquishing in his match with Lleyton Hewitt. His links to an adoring, Hellenocentric and thus subversive fan club, suitably and cynically ‘played up,’ have merely served to enhance his ‘foreignness,’ in an attempt to alienate him further from the goodwill of the mainstream. Interestingly enough, according to one spectator, at the Baghdatis-Hewitt game, Baghdatis fans were directed to sit in the ‘nose-bleed section of the arena. When asked why, an apologetic security guy who happened to look ‘Mediterranean’ advised that security had been directed to make sure no Hellas Fan Club or blue of any kind was to be shown in the game.
If any lesson is thus to be drawn from this year’s Australian Open, it is that ethnic identity is not something that can be taken for granted. Since the radical, brilliant community activism of the seventies and eighties that saw the official institution of multiculturalism and Greek language programs at tertiary institutions, our community has rested on its laurels, allowing itself to slip blissfully into the margins of Australian society. Just how far it will continue to do so, will depend on our own willingness to assert ourselves not within the context of the subservient and/or law-abiding foreigner, but rather as truly equal partners in the forging of the subtly composite identity of this nation. After all, are we not, in the words of the great British bard Shakespeare, all children of: “A man whom both the waters and the wind/ In that vast tennis court, have made the ball/ For them to play upon.”

First published in NKEE on 28 January 2008