Monday, September 29, 2008


“We didn’t know how and we didn’t know why. All we knew was that they were coming. People were streaming in from the interior, their clothes in tatters, telling gruesome stories of the horrors that befell them. When we left, they were close behind us, every step of the way and all we knew was that we had to flee, that if they caught up with us, it would mean death. When we got to Smyrna, we thought we were safe. No one ever thought that they would enter Smyrna.”
In 1922, an eleven year old boy fled his home city of Aydin in western Asia Minor and embarked on what was for him, an epic 100km journey westwards with his brother, to Smyrna and safety, escaping a pursuing Turkish army. Along the way, he witnessed the rape of the country side occasioned by the Graeco-Turkish War, the panic and hysteria of a Greek population just beginning to comprehend that the 3000 year sojourn in these lands was coming to a close and that their lives were in mortal peril. He also witnessed what was to be the most terrible closing chapter in the history of Greek habitation of Asia Minor – the holocaust of Smyrna. That boy was my grandfather, Kostas Kalymnios.
For over two thousand years before 1922, the Greek people thrived in Smyrna, a beautiful port on the coast of Asia Minor, founded by the Ionians. It is one of the cities which lays claim to the honour of being the birthplace of Homer. Enlarged and rebuilt successively by Antigonus I and Lysimachus, it soon became one of the largest and most prosperous cities in Asia Minor. Its wealth and splendour increased under Roman rule, and Smyrna was one of the cities referred to in the Revelation of John as comprising one of the seven churches of Asia Minor. Throughout its tortuous history, captured by Seljuk Turks, Mongols and finally the Ottoman Turks in 1424, it remained essentially a Greek city throughout the ages, a cultural as well as commercial entrepot of trade and commerce, under Adamantios Korais fostered the Greek enlightenment and with the rise of nationalism became one of the key foci of the Greek «Μεγάλη Ιδέα» or ‘Great Idea’ to reunify all the historical lands inhabited by Greeks.
At the turn of the twentieth century, the Ottoman Empire, known as the ‘sick man of Europe’ was in constant turmoil, with each subject nationality aspiring towards self-rule and many Turkic groups embracing nationalism, liberalism and questioning the values of the Empire. Smyrna especially proved a hotbed of radical idealists, given its international character and its concentration of intellectuals from France, England, Russia and America. The Young Turk revolution of 1908 brought Turkish nationalism to the fore and it became the ideology of the regime that non-Turks could not play a role in what should be a Turkish-only state. Beginning around 1913, the Ottoman Turks, sensing the imminent collapse of the Empire, began a campaign to "Turkify" the population of Asia Minor by expelling or eliminating its minority populations. The Greeks, Assyrians and Armenians were of the many ethnic groups whose legitimacy of habitation in Asia Minor was questioned. Smyrna proved somewhat of an anomaly for the Ottomans and Young Turks alike: its predominantly Greek population along with substantial, Armenian, Jewish and other European populations as well did not lend itself easily to be included within the ethnically based policies of Young Turks. It was in essence a European city, adorned in neo-classical architecture, with Parisian inspired theatres, auditoriums, colleges and clubs, possessed a tram line and a fin de siecle self confidence in western civilisation. No wonder then that Smyrna’s appellation in the popular parlance of the Turks was “gâvurizmir,” Smyrna of the Infidels. In 1922, in the culmination of a campaign to rid the newly created Republic of Turkey of its ethnic minorities, the ancient city of Smyrna was destroyed.
With the signing of the Treaty of Sevres in 1919, Greece was given a mandate to occupy the province of Smyrna for five years, after which time, a plebiscite would determine whether the province would remain in Turkey or be ceded to Greece. The liberation of Smyrna on 2 May 1915 was greeted with jubilation by the Christian population of the city. However, as Venizelos managed to extend the Entente mandate to occupy the province of Aydin, Turkish patriotism, dormant after the Empire’s humiliating defeat, began to come to the fore. It was considered that Greece was invading and occupying the Turkish heartland, and Turks rallied around Mustafa Kemal Atatürk to remove the Greeks from Asia Minor and began to attack Greek troops. Venizelos ordered a general advance of troops into Asia Minor. The troops eventually advanced to the outskirts on Ankara, drawn further and further from their supply lines, demoralised by a war that was a running sore on the Greek economy and psyche and having to combat the competing interests of the Italians who had occupied southern Turkey and were actively assisting the Turks against the Greeks. The removal of Venizelos and restitution of the throne to Constantine awarded the Entente a pretext to extricate themselves from an issue that had now become uncontrollable- they withdrew their support from Greece.
In a major offensive on August 26, 1922, against the Greek positions on the Sakarya River, Atatürk smashed the Greek army, forcing them to retreat in a panic from Asia Minor, committing widespread brutalities against Turkish populations as they fled and leaving Greek populations undefended.
As the Turkish troops began their inexorable advance towards the Aegean, Smyrna was seized in panic. The arrival of crowds of refugees from the interior and of the ragged remnants of the Greek army, coupled with the abandonment of the town on the part of civil and military authority, reduced the inhabitants to waiting in agony for the end. On 27 August, the first Turkish irregulars entered the town through the Pounta bridge and began to loot and pillage. Rudolph J. Rummel states that the Turkish army indulged in "systematic firing" in the Armenian and Greek quarters of the city. He argues that after the Turks recaptured the city, Turkish soldiers and Moslem mobs shot and hacked to death Armenians, Greeks, and other Christians in the streets of the city; he estimates the victims of these massacres, by giving reference to the previous claims of Marjorie Housepian Dobkin, at about 100,000.
As Christians were rounded up for execution, thousands flocked to the docks in the hope of fleeing the catastrophe. Turkish soldiers would stand on the quayside and fire at refugees attempting to swim to safety. Despite the fact that there were numerous ships from various Allied powers in the harbor of Smyrna, the vast majority of ships, citing "neutrality," did not pick up Greek and Armenian civilians who were forced to flee the fire and Turkish troops. Military bands played loud music to drown out the screams of those who were drowning in the harbor. Other scholars give a different account of the events; they argue that the Turks first forbade foreign ships in the harbor to pick up the survivors, but, then, under pressure especially from Britain, France, and the United States, they allowed the rescuing of all the Christians except males 17 to 45 years old, whom they aimed to deport into the interior, which was regarded as a short life sentence to slavery under brutal masters, ended by mysterious death.
On 31 August 1922, as a direct result of the pillaging of the Greek and Armenian quarters and the burning of their homes, four fires broke out in the city. Mark Lambert Bristol, US High Commissioner, was an eyewitness to the cause: “Many of us personally saw-- and are ready to affirm the statement-- Turkish soldiers often directed by officers throwing petroleum in the street and houses. Vice-Consul Barnes watched a Turkish officer leisurely fire the Custom House and the Passport Bureau while at least fifty Turkish soldiers stood by. Major Davis saw Turkish soldiers throwing oil in many houses. The Navy patrol reported seeing a complete horseshoe of fires started by the Turks around the American school.”
US Diplomat George Horton, is also unequivocal, despite revisionist Turkish claims that the Greeks and Armenians were the cause of the blaze: “The fire was lighted at the edge of the Armenian quarter at a time when a strong wind was blowing toward the Christian section and away from the Turkish. The Turkish quarter was not in any way involved in the catastrophe and during all the abominable scenes that followed and all the indescribable sufferings of the Christians, the Mohammedan quarter was lighted up and gay with dancing, singing and joyous celebration.”
Internationally renown Turkish author, Falih Rifki Atay, admitted: “Gavur İzmir burned and came to an end with its flames in the darkness and its smoke in daylight. Were those responsible for the fire really the Armenian arsonists as we were told in those days? ... As I have decided to write the truth as far as I know I want to quote a page from the notes I took in those days. ‘The plunderers helped spread the fire ... Why were we burning down İzmir? Were we afraid that if waterfront konaks, hotels and taverns stayed in place, we would never be able to get rid of the minorities? When the Armenians were being deported in the First World War, we had burned down all the habitable districts and neighbourhoods in Anatolian towns and cities with this very same fear. This does not solely derive from an urge for destruction. There is also some feeling of inferiority in it. It was as if anywhere that resembled Europe was destined to remain Christian and foreign and to be denied to us.”
Fortunately, recently, many Turks have begun to question the state narrative of the denial. Biray Kolluoglu Kirli, a Professor of Sociology at Bogazici University, published a paper in 2005 in which she pursues an argument based on the claim that the city was burned by the Turks in an attempt to cleanse the predominantly Christian city in order to make way for a new Muslim and Turkish city, and focuses on an examination of the extensions of this viewpoint on the Turkish nationalist narrative since.
The apogee of Turkish utter repudiation of the Greeks of Smyrna was the death of Bishop Chrysostomos, who had actively campaigned for the liberation of Asia Minor. He was delivered by Nureddin Bey to the ravaging mob with the instructions: “If he benefited you, do the same to him and if he hurt you, hurt him.” The ethnomartyr Chrysostomos was literally torn apart.
The enormity of the catastrophe still invokes horror today, Governor Pataki of New York has reflected: "...Smyrna, the largest city in Asia Minor called 'the jewel of the Mediterranean', a cosmopolitan hub populated by a highly educated Greek community and flourishing commercial and middle-classes, was sacked and burned and its inhabitants massacred by the Turkish forces; the pier of Smyrna became a scene of final desperation as the approaching flames forced many thousands to jump to their death, rather than be consumed by flame."
On September 9, 1922, Atatürk entered Smyrna triumphantly. The utter destruction of this once vibrant city also signalled the death knell for Greek irredentism. A population exchange was organised in which almost two million Greeks were caused to leave Asia Minor and were settled in Greece. The exchange put a tremendous strain on the Greek economy as it tried to cope with the influx of over a million new people in Greece. The hardships endured by the individuals concerned were also very trying as many Greeks abandoned a privileged life in Asia Minor for one of poverty in shantytowns in Greece. Nevertheless, the exchange helped to stabilise the region and though heart wrenching, served to bring about peace.
There remains no vestige of a 3,000 year old Greek presence in the modern city of Izmir today. The Jewish curse “may their name and memory be erased” has partly come true with respect to the Greeks of Smyrna. While their names may be gone, their memory lives eternal, through the economic advancement of Greece, regenesis of radical political thought and rembetika music. The holocaust of Smyrna is a tragedy not only for the Greek and Armenian victims, but also for the Turkish nation. It is the tragedy of the insignificant caught underneath the millstone of the conflicting and cynical permutations of the designs of the powerful. Viewed through this prism, all are victims, the dead and those who were, through no fault of their own, forced to commit awful brutalities.
First published in NKEE on 29 September 2008

Monday, September 22, 2008


Behold, you are beautiful my love.
Behold you are beautiful.
Your eyes are doves behind the veil.
Your hair is as a flock of goats,
that descend from Mount Gilead.
Song of Solomon.

"After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven. He had great authority, and the earth was illuminated by his splendour. With a mighty voice he shouted:
“Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great! She has become a home for demons and a haunt for every evil spirit,
a haunt for every unclean and detestable bird. For all the nations have drunk the maddening wine of her adulteries.
The kings of the earth committed adultery with her, and the merchants of the earth grew rich from her excessive luxuries.”

The above biblical verses would not be out of place in George Athanasiou’s latest poetry collection, “Tales of Light and Darkness," launched on 21 September 2008. For in this collection, a manichaean dichotomy is made between two absolutes that are irreconcilably opposed to each other. Throughout its pages, an epic battle is played out between them, one that was hitherto hidden from us but which the poet generously entrusts to us, in the form of a revelation and prophecy.
From the outset, we are given to understand that the poet’s conception of himself is that of a lucifer, or bringer of Light into the pages of his work. It is noteworthy in this regard that the word “Light” is repeated constantly throughout the collection, appearing in almost every single one of the individual poems. Light, also known as Truth, is held by him to be a direct derivative of Love, which is its chief prerequisite. We learn also that in Athanasiou’s poetic domain, love has a gender and that it is female. The subject of most of the poems is an unidentifiable (or sometimes identifiable “she”) who is variously a damsel in distress, an angel or even in some cases, a predator.
That being so, it is therefore not by chance alone that the vast majority of “Light” poems that form half of the collection, are presented to us in the form reminiscent of the Song of Solomon, which is an allegory for love for God, through the form of a dialogue between two lovers – that is a love poem.
Indeed it seems that the Song of Solomon is Athanasiou’s chief inspiration in presenting the ideological basis behind the world of Light. In “A World Away,” we are told that true gnosis which is knowledge of the path of salvation, is derived from the outside and its warmth is illuminating: ‘She’s a world away/ she brightens up my day.’ A necessary corollary of such illumination is the granting by grace of sight, which is after all a condition precedent to one being able to behold light. Thus: ‘I thank God he didn’t make me blind/ And I’m not talking about physical blindness at all/ I’m talking about the light within each of us that stirs the soul.’ In “Beautiful Girl,” Athanasiou juxtaposes light from its surrounds and places it into the context of the primordial conflict he will soon enmesh the reader within: ‘Her eyes… glistening in the darkness from a distance/ like beacons of light/ paving the way to the depths of her soul.’ In doing so, truth/light is gleaned and it is beautiful: ‘…her endearing face, untainted by make up.’
If “An Observer’s Tales,” Athanasiou’s first collection of poems, was oblique and apophatic, “Tales of Light and Darkness,” is direct and emphatic. Having traversed the noetic and physical world and endeavoured to reduce it to its elemental constituents, Athanasiou has stumbled upon the battle of two extremes, Light and Darkness that defines our present day existence. As in the case of the Mithraic myths of Ancient Persia, it is incumbent upon the reader to make certain sacrifices if the sun of righteousness is to illuminate our world. In the reader’s case, the qurbana or sacrifice required is bloodless – it is merely a pledge of allegiance to the life-giving powers of Light. Instead, it is the poet who, in a manner reminiscent of the supreme Sacrificial Lamb, will shed his own blood, in the symbolic form of ‘fine wine’ (see “A Victory March in September” where the poet’s longing for the victory of Light over Darkness is symbolized by the motif of a Grand Final football match.)
Often, the poet despairs of his task, considering it futile. The world, especially humanity, seems to be too much in thrall to the nefarious powers of Darkness to be capable of salvation. In “The Fire of the Flame,” a poem that reminds one of the pop song “Candle in the Wind,” he laments: ‘The Wind breathes on the candle flame/ trying to blow it out in a tug of war/ but it still lingers flickering…though death is inevitable… till its warmth is no more than a memory/ etched into our recall.” The existence of pure Light in this corrupted and fallen world is precarious and beleaguered upon all sides. As if seeking reassurance to carry out his self-appointed and Herculean task, he resorts to asking of the reader in “Another Resurrection”: ‘In the name of the Father/ and in the name of the Son/ believe that the battle for emancipation can ever be won./ Do you believe his follower’s eyes or the pharisaic lies?’ The appeal to those who have seen the Light is an exhortation for the reader to believe in the evidence presented before their eyes. It is also an implication that the poet considers his own powers of convincing to be paltry and must resort to testimonials. Again, following ancient Persian tradition, the enemy is referred to as the ‘Lie,’ albeit with a judaeo-christian gloss.
Despite this despair, the poet finds consolation and solace in love, from which he draws the strength to continue to preach his message. Whereas his previous collection of poems focused upon unrequited love, most of the poems of this collection focus upon the consequences (mostly beneficial) of love requited. This, often in the form of a ‘sales pitch’ becomes extremely apparent in “The Gulf of Loneliness,” where he vows: ‘If I had to move mountains/ for you I would move them/ If I had to break chains/ I would shatter them all..’ For, and this is the crux of the poet’s guiding ideology towards his mission, adopted from the central Christian message in John 15:13, ‘what greater love is there than for a man to give up his life for his friend.’
Yet while he holds himself out to be capable of ‘carrying [us] over the gulf of loneliness,’ he not only despairs of his capability to carry out his mission but also whether he is able to adhere to its central tenets in the first place. If beholding the Light is to witness the ultimate reality, Athanasiou fears that he is a fake, easily given up to temptation and that this is the reason why he is experiencing difficulty in convincing others to abjure the ‘Dark Side’: ‘Why on earth would she go out with a boy like you?/ Get a hold of yourself Pinocchio/ You’re made from wood…’ Reaching into the darkness harbours the danger of losing one’s sense of reality unless they are spiritually prepared: ‘You want to be made of plastic fantastic too/ Made to look like some plastic toy/ Didn’t you always want to be a real boy?’ This inability to distinguish between the animate and the inanimate merely serves to highlight the quandary in which modern humanity finds itself. Athanasiou will return to the motif of the puppet in “The Art of Detail,” saying: ‘And I might prevail/ the mannequin rises to the occasion/ what exhilaration/ she brings/ to a mere puppet/ riding on strings.’
A consequence of the poet’s deep-seated feeling of inadequacy and illegitimacy is his ultimate fear of failure. Like the prophet Jonah, he often seems only too willing, in the absence of ready adherents, to believe that all his endeavours will come to nought and the darkness he has been sent to warn us about as well as ward off, will conquer all: ‘As the gladiator raises his shield/ On his last legs/ On his last breath/ In the end one will be vanquished/The other will prevail/ All hail/ the pinnacle of barbarism.’ The prospect of such a victory as is depicted in “The Gladiator” is so terrible that the victor cannot be named, causing the poet to resort to the euphemism: ‘the other.’
Conversely, when this contemporary Jeremiah is sure of his reception, he is renewed and in bliss. Assuming the guise of a port, the poet promises safe haven to those (females for preference) who would heed his call, see the Light and join him in his crusade. ‘Love Beckons’ to that mystical communion of purpose: ‘And aiming for the shore/ drops her anchor/ wanting more than a kiss/ what bliss!/ As she puts her arms around me/ she has me wondering/ and wanting more on the edge of my shore/ love beckons.’ Even the prospect of such a communion, without a guarantee of its actualization is enough to excite and sustain him. Thus in “Favourite Memories” he waxes: ‘My heart soars/ In anticipation/ of the possibility of love/ Reciprocated/ All I have to go on/ is a single smile/ Gone/ but not forgotten.’ It is implicit then that the poet’s salvation lies as much in his reader as his reader’s does in him. This serves to break down the barrier between the poet and his audience, lending to his work, a heightened sense of intimacy. He is particularly lyrical in the tradition of the Song of Solomon when he perceives that his target has finally acquired the gnosis necessary to distinguish light from darkness and rejoices that finally, ‘She knows’: ‘Her eyes flirt with darkness,’ but they are ‘brightened by the light/ that reaches out from her soul.’ Then, the synthesis, the apogee of gnosis is portrayed as an ultimately erotic experience: ‘And as she presses her lips on mine/ I can only find/ How much more I want to lose myself/ In the arms of her embrace/ My heart’s resting place/ My soul’s repose/ She knows.’
Such allies as are to be relied upon in the final battle must be bound to Athanasiou by the strongest bonds, and these are those of love. As a recruiter of disciples, he has particularly sharp eyes: ‘Not an ordinary girl/ I think/ But a pearl of wisdom/ And she can have my kingdom/ And though its early days yet/ I’m willing to bet/ her love will stand the test of time…’ (“From Long Ago”) Interestingly enough, in the Orthodox Christian tradition in which the poet couches his discourse, the ‘pearl of great price’ that marks the ultimate reward for accomplished Christians, is martyrdom.
Athanasiou’s readiness to provide his true adherents with a ‘kingdom’ is troubling, especially given that the terrestrial domain seems to be currently given over to powers infernal and dark. However, it is soon revealed that as in John 18:36, the kingdom of which he speaks is ‘not of this earth.’ Having satisfied himself that the reader is by now at least receptive to his call to sight, he prepares them for the oncoming battle by revealing and invoking the protection and assistance of otherwordly, divine powers. In “She’s Still Here,” he unveils the chief weapon in his arsenal to be St Mary, the Mother of God, who ‘embraced me to keep me warm,’ and advises that ‘if you want things to change for the better/ Call out to her in prayer/ She’s still here.’
The eschatological dimension to the poet’s perception of his world is further pronounced when he sizes up his enemy, the Zoroastrian Lie or Untruth. Even before he confronts the Ultimate Darkness, he observes the signs of its works everywhere: ‘A woman with no name/ has fallen from Grace/ lusting after hellfire.’ (“A Slave to the Syringe.”) The virtual reality and thus untruth of drugs is also a manifestation of the para-reality that distorts and parodies the perfection of Creation. Thus, ‘Drugs are like thugs’ and ‘these negative ideas/ are the rudimentary fears/ formed from fatigue and loneliness/ That is blind to the good that is out there.’ (“Drugs are like Thugs”)
The concept of planē or prelest in the Orthodox tradition as a spiritual blindness that convinces the deluded that they are on the right path, only to discover when it is too late their path is that of darkness and destruction is explored fully by the poet and indeed, it forms one of his chief concerns. According to him, it requires a good deal of discernment and spiritual preparation in order to avoid the pitfalls of darkness and traverse the path of enlightenment: ‘Cast your mind back to the days when you used to glow/ when you could distinguish friend from foe/ on life’s battlefield.’ Otherwise, we are dozing denizens of a “Fool’s Paradise.”
Indeed, some of the more accomplished poems of the collection are those that deal directly with the impossibility of identifying a foe that can take a multitude of forms and who, appealing to our basest instincts, attempts to elicit mastery over us through seduction. In “Horizontal Tango” it is noteworthy that the gender of the foe is female, highlighting how easy it is to veer off from one extreme to the other: ‘A horizontal tango with you?/ But I don’t love you,” he told her./ “You don’t love me yet/ But I’m willing to bet/ This will be one night you’ll never forget.’ The use of the vernacular and popular clichés lends an immediacy and relevance to the poem, to the modern reader.
In order to combat such an onslaught upon the senses, the poet adopts a somewhat homeopathic approach. The minions of darkness can often be cured through simple acts of love such as ‘giving someone a hug.’ (“Drugs are Like Thugs.”) This inversion of tactics ostensibly confounds the poet’s dualistic premise. There is an evil opposite counterpart for everything that exists in the world but it seems to be of the same essence. Is the poet hinting that extremes are not irreconcilable? Or is to consider the question seriously one of the more subtle forms of prelest? In “Wrong Train,” love, offered freely as a panacea by the poet throughout the work, is sold ‘to the highest bidder,’ befuddling the senses and rendering us unable to ‘distinguish between pleasure and pain’ (“Contrived Images”) until the final redemption.
Even prominent works of literature have their inverted counterpart. E M Forster’s “A Room with a View” appears in Athanasiou’s nightmarish looking-glass world as “A Room with No View,” where spiritual blindness leads to a cul-de-sac and ultimately, to total and utter annihilation: ‘As the blood gushes out of her wrists/ she closes her eyes and clenches her fists.’
In “Cyber Reality,” the poet even employs the motif to provide a counterpart for mankind - a cold lifeless world inhabited by machines. ‘The truth is lost/ somewhere between cyber reality/ And robotic failure.’ Despite all our efforts, we will fall low, very low and it will not be through us that redemption will come after all. In “Third from Sol,” he describes a reversal in the fortunes of his ‘side.’ ‘In a tug of war between night and day/ light and darkness/ the moon rises only to fall…’ Things seem hopeless and that is attributed to ‘…the grand arrogance of man/ by his own hand/ Civilisation reduced to dust/ Ashes to Ashes/ Dust to Dust.’
The enormity of this plummeting to the depths of desolation and degradation is felt so keenly by the poet that he suspects that the Enemy has penetrated his own defences. Thus, in “Weapons of Mass Destruction” he rages against the paranoia and confusion of a fallen world that cannot perceive the extent of its fall and rather, seeks to guard itself from illusory threats without concentrating on the task at hand and the possibility that he may, albeit unwittingly, assisting in bringing about this course of events: ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction are hidden throughout this poem. This poem may contain subliminal messages. Readers will be prosecuted.”
The above caveat notwithstanding, Athanasiou draws hope and reminds us in “The Ultimate Foe” that when all seems lost, it is only the ill-advised who abandon themselves to their fate, for much more is to transpire: ‘The other fighter is reeling/ It hasn’t been a bad show/ as for who’ll win/ that would be telling/ but in case you’re wondering/ Soon we’ll all know./ There’s one round to go/ Against the ultimate foe.’ For at the final hour, Athanasiou offers us consolation: ‘There is hope for a better tomorrow,’ where true love will triumph. (“Hope for a Better Tomorrow.”) As to when that felicitous event will occur, that depends on the reader and their capacity to acquire Athanasiou’s gnosis. When the time comes, he tells us, ‘you’ll know.’
The final outcome is most unexpected though hinted at throughout. The two opposing extremes, light and darkness will be reconciled in “The Two Lovers” in a manner reminiscent of the theology of Origen or St Gregory of Nyssa, with the ultimate apokatastasis of all things through Love and Grace, in Light. The intimate union and reconciliation of the two absolutes in order to form the ultimate Truth also takes on a particularly erotic tone: ‘And they are free/ Two passionate lovers/ Together/ Celebrating love the way it was meant to be…The day and the night finally meet/ Giving birth to the sun.’ In “A New Beginning” on the other hand, we are offered a further glimpse of the ultimate paradisiacal state as being one where Truth, again female in gender, can be glimpsed freely as it: ‘reveal[s] concealed images of her/ As images that have rarely seen the light of day/ Are captured by the sunrise/ That lights the pathway/ To a new beginning.’ Creation has thus been restored anew.
However, before the apokatastasis, an epic final battle must take place. In keeping with Athanasiou’s chief inspiration, the chronicles of that battle are, like the book of Revelation in the Bible, relegated to the final chapter. In that final section of the collection, entitled “The Excalibur Collection,” and featuring also in part in Athanasiou’s first book, Arthurian legends meld with Byzantine theology and Saturday Night Fever motifs to relate how the redemption and restoration prefigured in his prophetic writing takes place.
In “Tales of Light and Darkness,” Athanasiou appears variously as a Jeremiah, John the Baptist, his namesake St George and a multitude of other guises. It requires an attentive reader to discover as he himself helpfully hints in “The Alcove of Creativity,” that he considers himself as much more, for: 'Through his work…It’s been sitting there for a while/ Painstakingly being restored/ By the artist’s brush strokes/ And lush colours that evokes/ The canvas to come alive …Bathed in light/ To finally give up the images/ From a story… /Deep in an alcove of creativity/ Of an artist’s brilliant mind/ Till now.’
Now will someone turn on the lights?


First published in NKEE on 22 September 2008

Monday, September 15, 2008


"Whatever, in fact, is modern in our life we owe to the Greeks. Whatever is an anachronism is due to mediaevalism."
Oscar Wilde

If, one day, while navigating the wastelands of the Bactria, you are accosted by a scimitar-wielding Hephthalite Hun, claiming that humanity owes everything to the Hephthalites and not just the fact that their brutality caused the massive migration of peoples across central Asia, you'd be best advised to agree. Similarly, when lassoed by a burly Tocharian while enduring the endless dunes of the Turfan desert basin, maintaining that the world owes it all to the Tocharians, you might want to consider acceding to his point of view. Of course, you wouldn't really take their words to heart. After all, would not the testimony of a pro-Hun Hun render itself prone to accusations of bias? Now if a Tocharian were to argue that we are eternally indebted to the Hephthalite Huns, or if a Hephthalite Hun was to posit that we are obliged to the Tocharians for sundry matters then we would be more inclined to give consideration to their viewpoint.
Imagine now that you are going for a job interview and your only referees are your mother and your uncle Onoufrio. The chances of you obtaining said job are, all other things being equal, decidedly less than those of someone who is able to come highly recommended by persons without their own family, simply because the recommendation of someone who supposedly deals with you on your own merits is considered less biased than that of someone that is bonded to you involuntarily, by ties of blood. Similarly, had it not been commonly perceived that Kyle Sandilands was deliberately playing his girlfriend Tamara Jaber's songs over the radiowaves (a matter over which the said Sandilands has won a defamation lawsuit), questions would never have been raised over the ability of Jaber to make it on her own in the hallucinogenic rainbow quagmire that is the Australian music industry.
Traditionally, it does not appear that Greeks are possessed of a tradition of independent and unbiased refereeing. While the Romans may have believed that "laus in proprio ore sordescit," (praise in one's own mouth is offensive), in our particular case, the old adage: «αν δεν παινέψεις το σπίτι σου, θα πέσει να σε πλακώσει,» seems to be the order of the day. This literally means "if you do not praise your house, it will collapse and flatten you" and is to be read as the dire punishment to be inflicted upon those who would not look after their relatives or, more widely their "people." In same cases, this did occur. The fifth century BC Spartan general Pausanias, suspected of Persian sympathies, sought refuge in the temple of the goddess of the Golden House. The Spartan ephors proceeded to wall up the doors and windows of the house, causing Pausanias to starve to death. Another proof is the recurrence of the same names in Greek political life. So far, there have been three Karamanlides in Greek parliament, two Venizeloi, excluding their nephew Mitsotakis, who is founding a political dynasty of his own, with two of his children also in parliament, and of course, a multitude of Papandreoi among others. We tend to like to look after our own and praise them with great praise, probably as a psychological vestige of the primordial worship of the hearth goddess Hestia, which saw the communal living space transformed into a place of religious significance. A more contemporary example is evidenced in the behaviour of many elderly Greek-Australians. According to their testimony, they have no money and are on a pension (even those who have control of three investment properties in Malvern). Their children however, invariably have excellent, dream jobs and are rolling in wads and wads of cash, in various denominations.
It is for this reason that the outcome of the recent charity debate: "That Melbourne owes it all to the Greeks," in which the team for the negative conceded that truly indeed our fair city "owes it all" to the Greeks, is unsatisfactory. For the team for the affirmative, entrusted with the task of convincing the audience of the nebulous proposition that Melbourne owes it all to the Greeks, was in fact comprised of persons of Greek descent, namely, Andrew Demetriou, George Donikian and Helen Kapalos and axiomatically, could hardly have been expected to argue otherwise, without being lynched by their compatriots. Conversely, had it been the Anglo-Saxon Australians that had decided to jump on the Greek band wagon and direct the bit in the horse's mouth of praise with the bridle of acknowledging our contribution to the City of Melbourne, then their espousal of our cause would have carried greater weight, just as, in accordance with Ottoman-era jurisprudence, the testimony in a Christian case of a Muslim was worth the testimonies of two Christians. As it has transpired however, no one was willing to do so and thus, the victory of the august affirmative team is a hollow one. One suspects that the negative side 'let us win' and the fearsome Red Symon's assertion that his team had no chance of winning because "Neos Kosmos" had influenced public opinion merely reinforces our original contention, which is that the City of Melbourne is in thrall to our own concerted effort to praise our own house, lest it fall upon all Melburnian's heads and crush them. After all, Red Symons' spouse is a proud Cypriot. This then truly is a case where if not praising your house, then refraining from denigrating it is a sound idea, lest it or the wrath of your aggrieved loved ones flatten you.
It was Mark Twain who quipped that "We are always more anxious to be distinguished for a talent which we do not possess, than to be praised for the fifteen which we do possess." Indeed, our apparent pathological need to be the constant recipients of praise is mystifying and can probably be explained by the fact that we have been in some way "spoiled" by the adulation heaped upon our illustrious ancestors. Georg Christoph Lichtenberg for example, posited that: "The Greeks possessed a knowledge of human nature we seem hardly able to attain to without passing through the strengthening hibernation of a new barbarism." In turn, James Monroe, fifth president of the United States addressed Congress as follows: "The mention of Greece fills the mind with the most exalted sentiments and arouses in our bosoms the best feelings of which our nature is capable." As one who purports to play the violin, Helen Keller's conviction that: "If it is true that the violin is the most perfect of musical instruments, then Greek is the violin of human thought," renders me in the throes of ecstasy, regardless of the fact that my own violin-playing compares unfavourably to that of Inspector Clouseau of Pink Panther fame. Considering the strata of praise that has accreted within our psyche over the centuries since the 're-discovery' of our ancient past, it would not be far off the mark to venture that we have come to expect adulation as our birthright and inheritance, along with the Parthenon, democracy, philosophy, and everything else that the West finds good in our ancestors.
Despite the batholiths of adulation spewing forth from the consciousness of the Western world every so often, as a people we still feel insecure. This is because such praise as exists, is invariably directed towards our ancestors and we cannot shake off the paranoid feeling that it is vicarious. For after all, ever since Winston Churchill's statement that: "Hence we will not say that Greeks fight like heroes, but that heroes fight like Greeks," we latter-day Greeks have received little in the way of praise and much in the way of derogation. Jacqueline Kennedy, who was married to perhaps the most powerful modern Greek of them all, Onassis, has left us with the very telling symbol of the iconodulic way in which others are supposed to view us: "You are about to have your first experience with a Greek lunch. I will kill you if you pretend to like it." It is small wonder then, that we will seek out or orchestrate any opportunity to have such praise as is deemed lacking, lavished upon us, even by ourselves, despite Socrates' injunction: "Think not those faithful who praise all thy words and actions; but those who kindly reprove thy faults." Instead, I think it is Arnold Glasgow who carries the day, when he observes that: "Praise does wonders for our sense of hearing."
Melbourne of course, does not owe it all to the Greeks. For starters, it owes its very existence to the perfidy of one John Batman, who duped the eight elders of the Wurunjeri people into signing treaty documents, whereby, for a purchase price of blankets, knives, scissors and flour, flannel jackets, red shirts and a yearly tribute of similar items, he obtained about 400 km² around Corio Bay, and about 2,000 km² around the Yarra River.
However many elements about the nature of life in Melbourne are attributable to Greek endeavours. Extended trading hours derive directly from campaigns launched by Greek businessman Alfred Kouris. Most of these elements however, were instituted or introduced after activism involving many other ethnic groups. Indeed, one of the wonderful things about Greek community activism in Melbourne, especially until the mid-eighties, was the way in which it was able to harness the goodwill and progressive spirit of other, similarly orientated groups in order to bring about change. Greeks have played a vital role in the institution of multiculturalism, with associations such as the Democritus League campaigning for equal opportunities for migrants in employment and education and for social justice. Members of our community such as George Zangalis have been instrumental in compelling government to espouse the course of publicly funded ethnic broadcasting and language learning. Along with other ethnic groups, our championing of European football has seen it enjoy a large mainstream following, albeit in an ethnically cleansed and sanitised form. Greek organisations such as those of the Cretans have devoted vast energies in raising money for causes from which all may benefit, namely the Royal Children's Hospital Appeal. The many churches, clubhouses and other edifices that dot the Melbourne landscape designed, constructed or owned by Greeks, most notably Federation Square and the Eureka building, the National Day March, the Antipodes Festival and of course the annual blessing of the waters at the "Fota" comprise perhaps, the most tangible proof that we have indelibly altered the face of Melbourne since the arrival of the first Greeks upon its shores.
And why not? To us, Melbourne is the second Alexandria. Though we did not have the privilege of founding this city, we have adopted it as our own and have made lasting contributions to it, as well as to Greek culture, to the extent that we, and our cousins in Greece can view it as much as a Greek city, as an Australian one - a tremendous and at the same time paradoxically anachronistic Hellenistic feat. In all seriousness, it is delightful that we are able to participate in a mock debate that celebrates our contribution to our home city while slyly, though good-naturedly poking fun at some of our foibles, all for charity. After all, was it not Catherine the Great who explained: "I praise loudly and blame softly?"
Melbourne does not owe it all to the Greeks. But Melbourne without the Greeks would not be Melbourne after all. So let us sit back, relax and ingest our fix of praise for a while, considering this snippet, gleaned from the responses section of an internet page debating whether or not South Melbourne "Hellas," should condescend to join the nefarious A-League:
"Maybe the Greeks have taken over the city of Melbourne and they concreted over all the bloody grass."

First published in NKEE on 15 September 2008

Monday, September 08, 2008


"The real destroyer of the liberties of the people is he who spreads among them, bounties, donations and benefits." Plutarch.

Today, o gentle reader, the diatribist stands, or rather grovels in contrition upon the printed page, ashamed and corrected, both for his presumption and his naïveté - traits that have led to the downfall and humiliation of many a man, including Lord Chelmsford whose display of the same traits led to the massacre by the Zulus of the British army at Isandhlwana, and Romanos Diogenes, whose misguided handling of the battle of Manzikert on 26 August 1071, led to the occupation of Asia Minor by the Seljuk Turks.
Last year, moved by scenes of the arcadian landscape of the Peloponnese consumed in flame, I decided to lend a hand with the various fundraising appeals that were being organised. After a brief stint on ABC Radio with the omnipresent George Donikian and the effervescent Angela Pippos, I was profoundly moved, though unsurprised, at the volume of calls by ordinary Australians, pledging their monetary support and expressing their concern for the plight of the hapless fire victims. To me, this once more underlined the deep humanitarian lode running among the soul-stratum of Australian society. It also made me marvel at how, through our presence in this country, suddenly, an ostensibly unrelated people on the other side of the globe, can be viewed as kin.
Imbued and glowing with this fervent sense of peace, goodwill and solidarity to all mankind, my soaring spirits crashed with a resounding and downright messy splat upon the wet-concrete pavement of optimism when I next manned the telephones at the 3XY Radio Hellas Radiathon. For after taking a few pledges down, I received the following call from an elderly gentleman who snapped at me with an iron tongue resounding on a palette of granite:
Caller: "I just want to tell you that you are a moron and a stooge."
I: "Thank you. Can I enquire as to the basis of your opinion?"
Caller: "Because you are an idiot and you and everyone else there are in league with all the thieves who take money from poor pensioners like me and give it to the Greek government so that they can fight elections."
I: "Yes but this is the fire appeal. It has nothing to do with politics. And anyway, if you don't want to give any money, that's fine. No one is forcing you."
Caller: "You are all liars and cheats. You are all agents of the Greek government. How much are you getting paid to launder money for Nea Dimokratia?"
I am relatively used to crackpot callers, having presented various radio programmes over the years, wherein diverse people have rung up asking me to confirm rumours about the personal lives of other presenters, or where they can purchase the best feta cheese. I am also used to people disputing the wisdom of fundraisers, and remember still the bizarre argument of a woman whose call I took during the 1997 Easter Appeal for the Greeks of Northern Epirus. Her contention was that an appeal was not necessary because having been deprived of all luxuries for so many years, the Northern Epirots would not know how to apply the money raised.
This time however, I completely lost my composure. I sallied forth down the mouthpiece, firing volley after volley of expressions of righteous indignation. Through gritted teeth, I tersely informed the gentleman that Greece was smouldering in the throes of a national catastrophe and that it was narrow minded people like him who, in casting malicious, cynical and unjustified aspersions in a time of crisis instead of doing all that he could to alleviate his situation, personified everything that was wrong with the Greek people. I equated him with the Lacedaemonians who refused to accompany the rest of the Greeks in their punitive expeditions against the Persians and as a result, fell by the historical wayside of irrelevance. Having understood the word Lacedaemonian as an expletive, the old gentleman uttered a few choice, easily intelligible expletives of his own, referring to farm animals and promptly hung up the telephone.
My indignation increased over the next few hours, as I fielded questions such as: "How do you know that the money will reach its destination? How do you know whether the money will be applied to those who need it? How do we know that we won't have another Kalamata on our hands?" This last question was however pertinent. For the Kalamata 1986 earthquake alone accounts for the vast majority of scepticism and suspicion within our community vis a vis the raising of money for Helladic purposes. In the aftermath of that devastating disaster, the Greek community in Australia raised a considerable sum of money, only to learn to its consternation, that most of it was either misapplied, or never reached its destination. Suspicion then, is a lasting, and somewhat justifiable consequence of misdemeanour, though I tried to allay the callers' fears by arguing that the Balkan baroque Greece of 1986 was far removed from today's slick, ultra-Euro Greece of 2007. And in truth, I almost bought my own argument.
The flaw in it of course, is its disregard for historical precedent and a certain predilection we have historically displayed for misapplication. Much has been made in previous diatribes of the most famous case of fund misallocation. Pericles, the leading citizen of Athens, transferred the treasury of the Delian League, an association of city-states that had banded together in a mutual defence pact against Persia and thus, the precursor of NATO, to Athens. Having thus usurped the treasury, he cracked open its kernel and extracted the ensuing stream of golden goodness, which he then applied to the beautification of his city. Out of this act of embezzlement, humanity received the Acropolis and the manifestation of architectural perfection, the Parthenon but though this does not remove the stigma of cheating, it immensely lessens the severity of the act.
Pericles' shadow looms long. Recently, it was revealed in Greek Parliament, to immense consternation, that the three million dollars generously donated by the Australian government to the fire relief effort last year have been applied not to the victims of that devastating holocaust but to the building of a town hall in Zaharo. To add insult to injury, the law-abiding counsellors of this fairyland, have chosen to build their sugar-coated play-house on illegally zoned land. Three elements can therefore be distinguished from the Pericles precedent. Firstly, though Pericles definitely did steal the cookies from the cookie he, he also ensured that he had first obtained all requisite planning and building permits. Secondly, Pericles used his misallocated funds in order to construct an enduring masterpiece, to the eternal glory of a truly remarkable city, not some shoddy concrete edifice somewhere out in the sticks, that serves to obscure the slothful slitherings of Greek municipal gastropods. Thirdly, Pericles stole his own people's money and not that of other nations. Thus, he kept it and the ensuing scandal, within the family.
What has transpired, if it truly is as it has been reported, is not just a public relations disaster. It is a disgrace, an insult to the fraternal feelings of a generous country, but most of all, a gross insult to the Greeks of Australia. As a community, we labour long and hard in order to retain Greece's good name amidst the often hostile and biased attitudes of the mainstream media and the populace at large. We are at the forefront of the propagation of Greece's policy and stance on various issues of national importance, even in the face of occasional inept, inconsequential and irrelevant diplomats. To the Australian community at large, we are the face of Greece and it is in large a part because of the skill in which we have interwoven ourselves within the multicultural warp and weft of the Australian societal tapestry over decades, that the Australian government responded so generously and so quickly to the plight of our motherland. How are we supposed to explain the behaviour of our compatriots now? How are we to prevail upon the generosity of our government to the benefit of the motherland in the future, without being laughed at?
We justifiably feel embarrassed and betrayed. Had Greece and/or its various labyrinthine sub-bureaus misapplied our own funds, we would have been indignant but not that surprised, because sadly we have all come to stereotype such corruption as endemic within the Greek system. It is a stereotype well deserved. To misapply the relief funds of a foreign nation, offered in a humanitarian spirit of compassion and goodwill is however, highly disrespectful, both to the donor, who is being hoodwinked and lied to, and to the intended recipients of their largesse, many of whom a year after the crisis, still find themselves without homes. Most of all, it is blatant and cannot be excused.
It is too much to request that proper checks and balances are put in place so that monies flowing down the bureaucratic funnel reach their intended destination. Clearly Greece has a long way to go in this regard. It is not too much to ask however, for the Greek government to be mindful that one can only cry wolf so many times before those hearing those cries, question their sincerity and withhold valuable assistance.
In bitter moments like these, one cannot help but bring to mind the various clichés about Greece being a mother that mistreats her children. In this case she has not only taken food out of the mouths of her needy children but also humiliated those of her children who have provided it to her in the first place. The picture accompanying this diatribe, is entitled Grateful Greece. A virginal, humble looking maiden extends her arms in gratitude to offer benediction upon her well deserving children and their foreign friends, who gaze at her adoringly as they view the stockpile of arms and money at the centre of the work. This allegory symbolizes Greece’s gratitude to those who fought for her and funded the 1821 Revolution. It is worth noting in this regard that the majority of the aforementioned funds in question, came from Greeks living Abroad.
What would the modern day allegory of an ungrateful Greece resemble, I wonder? A garrulous, platinum blonde, cigarette puffing harridan, ensconced in pants one size too small, with a slight overhang of elephant-hide creased belly, sipping a frappe, eagerly discussing the opportunities for a new “kombina” as her neglected children abandon her one by one? We pray not. Yet while the first and second generations are ideologically and emotionally bound to Greece and will endure much for her sake, there is no guarantee that this stoic fervour will be passed down the generations. Greece should realise that the unconditional love of her children is, along with everything else these days in this climatically changed world, a finite resource, to be used and not abused. An apology must be immediately issued to the Australian government, coupled by an undertaking that its generous gift shall be remitted immediately to those in need.
As for the embezzling bureaucrats of Zaharo, this Parthian shot, from Henry Morgan: “A thief is a person who helps himself because he can’t help himself.” Until next week, give that they may take.


First published in NKEE on 8 September 2008

Monday, September 01, 2008


"I don't do drugs. I am drugs." Salvador Dali

Drugs in Sport are evil. Athletes who take drugs and then purport to participate in sports are blasphemers and they should suffer the death of Herod Agrippa, whose insides were gnawed at by unidentified intestinal worms, because at games that he held in Caesarea in honour of the 'god' Claudius, he had the effrontery to equate himself with God.
This notwithstanding, where athletes are apprehended consuming foreign bodies for the purpose of enhancement they must not ever be exposed. Such condign punishments as are to be meted out by their peers should be done so behind the parascenium, safely removed from the adoring eyes of their devotees, for prolonged exposure to such revelations will invariably result in a Göttedämerung of Wagnerian proportions.
Our athletes are superhuman. They are Gods. We do not worship them and ensure that they are provided with votive offerings in the form of sponsorship deals, photoshoots and other lucrative opportunities designed for them to amass untold riches in the treasuries associated to their temples because they get up early in the morning to train. If this were the case, then the millions of factory-workers and other labourers who rise before dawn and scurry to their place of drudgery in order to make their shifts and feed their families would be our articles of worship and would thus be rewarded accordingly. However, with the notable exception of Soviet super- coal-miner Alexei Stakhanov, who was reputedly able to mine 14 times his quota in a single shift, thus proving the superiority of the Soviet economic system, they are not.
Society, in all its forms, worships athletes because they have attuned their bodies to a level of relative aesthetic perfection that seems almost impossible to attain during the normal course of one's life and which is irrepressibly desirable. To transcend the aesthetic barrier into perfection, vast sacrifices need to be made. One must renounce the world and devote themselves entirely to the pursuit of perfection. It is then, no wonder that the Greek work askisis, is used today to denote training or practice, but also asceticism, a form of struggle, physical and spiritual, in the pursuit of a goal. In times ancient, the ascetics who populated the Thebaid desert of Egypt sought after Theosis or deification, through renunciation of material goods and often, in the case of St Anthony, mortification of the flesh. In today's secular society, we hope that through the lifelong training of our bodies, we too can possible achieve true athletosis - to be as physically beautiful and as capable of superhuman feats as the Olympians themselves.
When athletes use performance enhancing substances, the myth of theosis is thus destroyed and their devotees are left, lost in a spiritual vacuum that threatens to be filled by other more pernicious things, like literature. For the object of their aspirations has been proven to be unattainable through any normal, or even paranormal efforts. Not even the Olympians themselves can attain such perfection without resorting to ignoble means. Suddenly, what seemed plausible if only we strived a little harder, a little faster, a little higher, is after all, a fairy tale, a computer animated special effect in a Hollywood blockbuster movie, that fools no one. If we know that Hermes cannot fly and has to resort to winged sandals in order to convey himself through the air, then what makes him so very different from us? All he then becomes is some cashed up spoiled brat with access to technology and his interview in Sports Illustrated, replete with lustrous photograph of his toned torso and requisite speedo-covered bulges in all the right places and aphorisms about the nobility of friendly competition are relegated to the status of a superseded gospel.
It is a terrible thing to be left without a god to worship. The ancient Babylonians knew this and one of the first things that they would do upon conquering a foreign city was to lay their hands upon the city deity and carry it off to Babylon, just like conquering capitalist Sports Institutes sifted the ruins of the communist bloc, searching for athletes that could be carted off back home with the promise of a better pay and lifestyle. For the more gods a country has, the higher its status. A country that can produce more gods than others must surely be possessed of a superior culture, political system or genes. Australia knows this, and this is why it spends billions in locating, nurturing and training such gods, in order to present our pantheon to the rest of the world and have it contend with other purported gods. When our gods are victorious in the ensuing titanomachy, the lesser countries of the vanquished gods must acknowledge the veracity of our belief: the cult of the tall, bronzed Aussie. Similarly, the jubilation we feel when Greek athletes win gold medals can only be explained by a reassurance, that despite aeons of repression, the original Olympians' superiority can never be suppressed and though the world may want it to be otherwise, our way of life can triumph in the face of adversity.
Yet in contrast with the blind adulation of athletes by the Western world, Greek gods have always been subject to question and cynicism by their adherents, who have often pointed out their foibles and shortcoming. For one thing, Greeks gods are sore losers and cheats. Did not the great love goddess Aphrodite lend her name to the vast array of performance enhancing aphrodisiacs? Midas ended up with asinine ears after questioning the adjudication of a song competition against Apollo. Arachne was transformed into the homonymous insect by the goddess Athena, after she wove a tapestry that far surpassed anything that Athena could have managed. Excepting Hercules, who was after all, a demi-God, nothing in Greek mythology could be accomplished without the use of a performance enhancing device, whether that be the magic burnished shield and cap of invisibility of Perseus, the dragon's teeth of Jason or the magic bal of string of Theseus. Furthermore, nothing could be accomplished without the use of the most important performance enhancing device available: meson, or the intervention of the Olympian Gods. Where would Perseus have been if it were not for Athena providing him with the means to kill the Gorgon? Most likely an exhibit among the fossils in a museum of natural history. In ancient Greece, nobility of toil, ascesis and physical strength only got you so far, as the tragic story of the deluded Ajax in the Torjan epics proves. What really captured the imagination of the Greeks was how one employed their minds and made use of opportunities in order to surmount obstacles and achieve their ends.
In short, the ideal Greek god is not Michael Phelps, who stranded in the Mediterranean after being blown off course by Poseidon, could have conceivably swum home back to Ithaca, but the πολυμήχανος Odysseus, who used any performance enhancing means at his disposal, including floaties, skewers, seduction, sheep and disguise to escape the wrath of the gods and return home to his Penelope.
At any rate, there have always been drugs in sport. The ancient Maya, for example, are thought to have chewed cocoa leaves (from which cocaine is derived) to help them through their violent and sometimes fatal ball game "Pok-a-tok." And of course, the ancient Greek competitors in the Olympic Games drank mushroom and herb concoctions to give them extra oomph. Some athletes even resorted to an "organotherapy" diet to pep themselves up. The eating of the testicles of heart or an animal was said to give an athlete the requisite edge over his opponents, in the same way that a grandmother may insist that her grandchildren drink performance enhancing chamomile in winter. When I was young, my grandmother gave me a performance enhancing 'fylaxto.' While it did not protect me from coming third last in every single athletics competition I was ever forced to enter, it did protect me from failing my exams and though I would place it on my desk AND make the sign of the cross before picking up my pen, the supervisors never seemed to object, quite possibly because the were labouring under the delusion that their gods were superior to mine.
Of course the use of harmful performance enhancing drugs should be frowned upon. By the 1930s amphetamines were the pill of choice, helping athletes, soldiers, and college students increase their stamina and alertness. Soon after, steroids—drugs derived from hormones such as testosterone—arrived on the scene, to enable training at increased intensity and reduce the recovery time required between training sessions. For endurance athletes a favored technique was blood doping—injecting more blood into the body to increase hemoglobin levels, which raises oxygen-carrying capacity to the muscles. In recent years, a more sophisticated form of this technique involves taking a hormone known as erythropoietin—normally used for treating anaemia—to cause more red cell growth. In 1967 British cyclist Tom Simpson collapsed and died during the Tour de France. His autopsy showed high levels of methamphetamine, and a vial of the drug was found in his pocket at the time of his death. Simpson's death marked a turning point, and by the end of 1967 the International Olympic Committee and member federations began to establish doping-control programs.
We certainly don't want our athletes dropping off like flies in the middle of the track or the term of their natural life, like poor Flo-Jo. On the same token however, why can we not celebrate the genius of mankind that enables us to concoct potions and lotions that compel us to transcend the boundaries of the possible?
In order to help the Western world persist in the naive belief that athletes compete for the love of sport, especially since the Olympic Games have permitted the participation of mercenary athletes such as the multi-million dollar professional tennis stars Nedal and Federer, the said Games should be preserved in situ, complete with deluded and self-righteous prohibitions and exclamations of mock-horror upon their transgression. In between Olympiads however, there should be another set of Games instituted, to be held in Olympia and known as the "Dopia" or local games, where countries are free to exhibit the advances they have made in performance enhancing technology and we can all revel at our ingenious scientific attainments. These games could be sponsored by pharmaceutical companies and exhibit the human body in all its technologically altered forms. In this way, countries and athletes alike can be secure in the possession of two pantheons: the Heraclid gods of brawn and beauty and the Odyssean gods of premeditation and pill-popping. All in all it makes for guilt free competition and no one gets to lose their secular belief in the metaphysical impossible. In these Games, as 'philhellene' Jacques Rogge has pointed out, Greece will surely obtain the most gold medals.
Accordingly, substance-enhanced Katerina Thanou and Fani Halkia will always remain goddesses in my pantheon of malaise for on my Olympus, burnt offerings are offered to those who will offer me a Panadeine-Forte induced fantasy respite from the world of migraines and the mundane, rather than those who will have me contend with the hard, slow jog upon the inexorable track of the conventional. It is immensely sad that athletes feel so pressured to win that they must resort to cheating. It is even sadder still that countries feel so obsessed with winning that they are willing, as in the case of Australia, to spend $100 million per gold medal, on sports. Until next week, this from Bob Hope: "Drugs are very much a part of professional sports today, but when you think about it, golf is the only sport where the players aren't penalized for being on grass."


First published in NKEE on 1 September 2008