International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge cannot help himself from slighting Greece, at every opportunity. Fervent patriots will recall his breaking with the tradition of IOC presidents calling each successive Olympic Games “the best ever,” when at the 2004 Athens Games, after swallowing copious amounts of ascending bile, he called them the “unforgettable, dream games.” This of course, was well received in Australia, as the august president’s remarks were interpreted to signify that the Athens Games were inferior to those of Sydney.
Now the diatribe has looked at vast amounts of conspiracy theories in its time, propounding a doctrine of Greece’s isolation, coupled with the view that for reasons that have to do with Greece’s inherent spiritual and cultural superiority, the western world fears and loathes Greece and is dedicated to her destruction. Such theories have generally been tried and found wanting. Yet Jacques Rogge’s behavior at the London Games, would raise the eyebrow of even the most cynical sceptic. His pronouncement that: “In a sense, the Olympic Games are coming home tonight,” has caused fury in Greece. Rightly, the Greek people ask whether the president of the IOC knows anything about Modern Olympic History. If he does, then why does he hide the fact that the Modeern Olympic Games were the brainchild of Epirot benefactor and businessman Evangelos Zappas, who as far back as 1859 was organizing Olympic Games in Athens, and went on to donate the Panathenaic Stadium to the Greek nation for this purpose?
Similarly, when Jacques Rogge stated that: “The British approach to sport had a profound influence on Pierre de Coubertin, our founder, as he developed the framework for the modern Olympic Movement at the close of the 19th century,” did he not know that it was the English Doctor William Penny Brookes, who, inspired by the 1859 Athens Olympic Games, adopted such Games into his own “Wenlock Olympic Games?” Is he ignorant of the fact that the erroneously called “founder of the Modern Olympics” Baron Pierre de Coubertin was inspired in his own endeavours, by Dr Brookes? Further, is he ignorant of Professor David Young of the University of Florida’s conviction that:
“Had it not been for Zappas, the Athens Games of 1896 surely would not have taken place. Zappas's actions, his will and the previous tradition of Zappas Olympic Games had made Crown Prince Constantine of Greece, an advocate of Olympic Games before the formation of the IOC in 1894.”
The answer of course is that if Jacques Rogge knows this, he doesn’t care. In his mind, Britain has far more claim to be the ‘home’ of the Olympic Games as: “This great, sports-loving country is widely recognized as the birthplace of modern sport. It was here that the concepts of sportsmanship and fair play were first codified into clear rules and regulations. It was here that sport was included as an educational tool in the school curriculum.”
Greeks can protest that the ancient Greeks were the first ones to institutionalize and codify sport, in a tradition attested as far back as Homer, until they are blue in the face. For Jacques Rogge and the western world who accepted the sentiments expressed in his speech as their own, sport and the Olympics are a western accomplishment and while they are obliged to provide some lip service to the Greeks, they owe these non-westerners only grudging acknowledgment, in their quest to efface their claim on their supreme cultural attainment.
This can be evidenced in other Olympic ‘slights’ at the expense of Greece. For the first time, the Greek flag was not flown next to the Olympic Flag, in homage to the people that founded the Games, nor was the Greek national anthem heard, as is established tradition. Further, the Olympic Hymn, composed by Spiros Samaras to lyrics penned by Greek national poet Kostis Palamas, was not sung, though the IOC has declared as far back as 1958, that this Hymn should be sung at the commencement and closing of the Olympic Games, and has been so chanted continuously, until now.
Greeks also feel affronted that when Jacques Rogge was quizzed about London’s readiness to host the Games, he responded: “I’d like to believe that they are as ready as Sydney or Beijing, to mention the most recent Games.” Is the exclusion of Athens a mere oversight? Or do deep, dark and nefarious purposes compel such an omission?
Contrary to common Greek belief, these hurtful occurrences do not represent a conscious desire to erase the Greek character of the Games, stemming from a deep seated western feeling of inferiority at the achievements of such a small but tenacious people. Instead, they are symptomatic of a phenomenon that has its roots in the renaissance and beyond.
When Greeks seek to promote their ‘western’ credentials, they point to such elements that were developed in ancient Greece, and have inspired or been adopted by western cultures, such as theatre, democracy, architecture and the Olympic Games. They expect that since the primal myth of Western civilization holds that it is founded upon such ancient Greek values, that this will translate into a respect and acceptance of the Greek people at least as equals and at best as worthy of admiration, reverence and awe. More often than not, such respect is not forthcoming and the Greek people feel bewildered and hurt.
Yet these hurt Greeks would do well to remember the disgust of the majority of eighteenth and nineteenth European travelers through Greece, who formed the opinion that the modern Greeks were nothing like the rational, logical and civilized ancient Greeks they had constructed them to be. Instead, they were alien and oriental, objects of derision. Some, swallowing their distaste, attempted to impose a selective and false reconstructed system of ‘ancient values’ upon the renascent Modern Greeks, something that was and still is, eagerly accepted by Modern Greeks since it is western-sanctioned. Others, such as Fallmerayer went as far as to deny the connection between the ancient and modern Greeks altogether.
All the disparate parties however ignored the fact that the ancient Greeks were no more logical or rational or accomplished that their modern counterparts or anyone else. By imperialistically holding up a false view of our ancient ancestors and their accomplishments as an example to emulate, the West was merely appropriating for itself a model that it felt reflected its own greatness and aspirations. There was no room for silly orientals in that paradigm, who by their very flighty and over-emotional nature, were automatically disqualified from it. The high-handed and dismissive manner in which Greece is being treated by western nations during the current economic crisis is symptomatic of the neo-colonialist view that as a lesser, oriental race, we lack the maturity to look after ourselves, and thus need to be directed by the West. It is of course unfortunate that the irresponsible antics of Greek politicians reinforce that stereotype time and time again.
The Modern Olympic Games are as much a homage to the long gone ancient Greeks as democratic parliaments are. Over the sorry century of their existence they have been used primarily as a Western tool of cultural and political superiority and as a method of promoting the extension of western values, be they capitalist or communist over the globe. How else can one explain Rogge linking the Games with “sustainable development.” Rogge is perhaps right then when he states that the Olympic Games have come home. For certainly the modern Games, with their emphasis on hype, marketing and doping have nothing to do with the traditional Greek values or mindset and it is questionable whether we should want to be associated with a symptom of the bankruptcy of Western civilization, other than in a spirit of international brotherhood.
If the Greek people truly want to be emancipated, they should cease the odious practice of seeking validation from a Western world that rejects its intrinsic worth. There is much in the modern Greek tradition to revel in and to use as the basis for forging a third way. Greek people are compassionate, generous, humane, able to form deep and lasting relationships and intricate social networks. They are ingenious, inventive and able, in ways incomprehensible to many other cultures, to harmoniously reconcile urban living with the harmonies of the natural world and most importantly, they have survived four thousand years of almost constant warfare, aggression and strife as a coherent nation. This is the crowning achievement of our race and we need not take umbrage at the empty snubs of others. For as Rogge admits and he would do well to heed his own words: “Character counts far more than medals.”
First published in NKEE on Saturday 11 August 2012