Not much survives the demise of the infamous Council of Greeks Abroad, also known as SAE. After a babble of world and local councils (babble being the collective known to describe such talkfests), after the disbursement of millions in order to fly and accommodate delegates from the various continents in Thessaloniki, the so-called world capital of Hellenes Abroad, after an inordinate amount of local skulduggery and jockeying in order to obtain a place in SAE, and so secure a free trip to the motherland, the whole unsteady edifice lies in a heap of smoking ruins, and this, especially after it was announced that the said organisation had to be self-funding.
Out of all the promises and rhetoric however, an unlikely survivor has emerged, one which encapsulates the spirit but not the inefficiency or political agendas of its parent organisation. This survivor is none other than the Panhellenic Games, whose recent games were held in Canberra, and were, according to all accounts, a resounding success.
The Panhellenic Games were a brainchild of SAE Oceania and were initially partly funded by the Greek government. It says much not only for the enduring importance of this institution but also of the SAE delegates who were involved in its organisation that after the dissolution of SAE, they saw fit, of their own volition, quietly and without the fanfare that usually accompanies office-bearers of community organisations, to continue to concern themselves with the perpetuation of the Games. As a result of their dedication, the Panhellenic Games have become a fixture on our community scene, on a Pan-Australian level, uniting young Greek-Australians in an unprecedented way.
Along the way, there have been teething problems. Earlier this year, groups of discontented newly arrived Greek migrants accused the organisers of the Games of deliberately excluding them from participating in the Games, going so far as to accuse them of discrimination. The Games organisers in turn responded by stating that while their focus is primarily to provide a forum for young Greek- Australians, largely disengaged with the organised community, to associate with each other, the inclusion of young Greek migrants in future Games is not necessarily precluded.
This small dispute illustrates the key significance of the Games. Some one hundred years after the founding or our communities and some fifty years after the commencement of Greek mass migration to this country, the community we term as Greek, is as diverse as never before. It is comprised of persons fluent in Greek and integrated within the community, others who have no contact with the Greek community apart from their own family and friends, those who are of Greek descent but do not speak the language and are not engaged or exposed to “Greek culture,” the surprisingly numerous non-Greek partners of Greeks who speak Greek and lately of course, recent arrivals from the beleaguered motherland. It is trite to mention that it is inordinately difficult to find an overarching identity for all these categories of Greeks, let alone serve their needs within the community.
This is because on the whole, our organised community purveys a form of Hellenism that is political in structure (engaging in brotherhood politics seems to have been the major pastime for many years) and agro-cultural in outlook. This means that if you aren’t interested in the annual Sardine or Ouzo festival, if you aren’t into Greek dancing, yawn at the sound of traditional Greek music or Greek attempts to ape western music cacophonously, do not blink at the mention of the poet Cavafy, can’t even spell Polytechnic let alone know what it is and are intimidated by the sound of a Greek language that is unfamiliar to you, there isn’t much that the Greek community has to offer you and chances are it will not embrace you, given that you don’t fit the salient criteria for inclusion within the ethno-cultural group.
The Panhellenic Games are therefore a most invaluable tessera within the mosaic of our broader Greek-Australian community. Sport has the capacity to transcend cultural, linguistic and other boundaries in a way that no other activity openly practised within the Greek community can. As such, the fact that the ancient Greeks used the ancient Olympics as a way of reaffirming a common identity between diverse tribes, should not escape us. Furthermore, given that in Australia sport is less of a pastime and more of a religion, it constitutes an ideal method to attract participation from those of Hellenic descent who feel excluded by or do not understand, other, more traditionally “Hellenic” pursuits.
Thus, at the recent Canberra Games, attended by young Greeks from throughout Australia, the participation by Greek-Australians of limited Greek language skills or of whom only one parent or grand-parent was Greek was noteworthy and encouraging. Such participants eagerly embraced the opportunity to meet and enjoy the company of others who call themselves Greek, engaging with the concept of an identity with which they may only have a passing acquaintance, possibly creating or deconstructing from that intercourse their own distinctive conception of a Greek identity, all the while, engaging in a pursuit that they enjoy, and feel comfortable with, without being imposed upon to act or speak a certain way. For those already possessed of various rudiments of Greek culture, the opportunity to socialise and compete with their peers was equally enjoyed.
The term Panhellenic encapsulates within it a lofty ideal, that of being open to all Hellenes. In a culture, at least here in Australia that has historically attempted to define itself by the exclusion of others, this is no easy task. The organisers of the Panhellenic Games are to be commended for their persistence in striving to achieve this ideal, abjuring lauds and publicity but carrying on what is effectively a ministry to the large corpus of the youth whose interests are not represented or engaged by the current pursuits or structures of the organised Greek community. Given the groundswell of grass-roots support for their endeavours, along with the well-deserved attention of various State Governments, it is quite likely that the Games will only expand in scope in the future.
If anything, the success of the Panhellenic Games teach us this: that we must constantly be in search of new methods to engage with an increasingly diversified Greek community. Our current organisations and structures present an antiquated view of the composition of our community. If some sense of cohesion is to be maintained, novel approaches catering to traditionally “non-Greek” interests must be explored and embraced. We leave you this week expressing the pious wish that at the re-convening of the without a doubt well attended next Panhellenic Games, a marathon event be introduced, compelling athletes to compete, clad, in Spiridon Louis fashion, in foustanella, while being chased by the protesting citizens of Berwick. May the games begin.
First published in NKEE on Saturday, 9 November 2013