Monday, September 07, 2009


It was John Wooden who first observed that “sports do not build character – they reveal it.” Considering that it was the ancient Greeks who, if they did not invent it, certainly institutionalised sport – they made it part of their religion and civil structure – much could be said about the character of that people. Indeed, we may possibly find the oldest literary evidence of sport in that ancient Greek Homeric epics, in the funeral games held by the Greeks for Patroclus.
Benjamin Franklin considered that sport lubricates the body and the mind and the ancient Greek maxim of a healthy mind in a healthy body has been with us for millennia. Kalos, our word for good, originally meant beautiful and was applied to the human form. The Greek celebration of the beauty of the human form has its offshoot not only in sport but also in sculpture. Sport, a glorification of the perfection of the body and its innate capabilities was merely kinetic sculpture and this would account for the evolution of the tradition that had athletes compete sans loincloth. Contrary to common belief, new research suggests that unmarried girls were permitted to view athletes undraped in order that they too could appreciate the body beautiful with all its working parts in order. In a bizarre documentary about the Olympic Games I once saw, it was held that only married women were restricted from viewing nude, oiled up youths from competing in sports so as to spare flabby, aged husbands unnecessary strain and embarrassment. This theory is not as far fetched as it seems. Even today, the majority of Greek-Australian males in a relationship will hesitate to bring their partners with them to view the football or soccer. Television, with its capacity for close-ups and replay is considered more insidious and one can tell that a relationship has moved on to either a secure level or one of mutual disinterest when such insecurity becomes immaterial.
In ancient Greece, a land of extremely culturally diverse, individualistic and often squabbling city states, athletes were able to meet, ostensibly to worship Zeus but primarily to meet and compete, seeking excellence not only in surpassing their competitors but also themselves. It says much for the Greek view of sport then, that throughout the duration of such Games, hostilities between participating states would cease. Perhaps the upcoming Panhellenic Games could have a similar soothing effect among the warring tribes of the parochial Greek community. Sport was definitely about winning, for this brought about immortal glory and a lot of friends and tax breaks back home, but the ultimate victory was attaining excellence itself.
Through sport, especially the Olympic Games, the Greek people were able to define themselves as a people by excluding others from participation. In an act that has caused us no end of grief, some misguided Olympic hellanodikae whose lands were threatened by Macedonian expansion sought to exclude the participation of the Macedonian King Alexander I on the grounds that he was a barbarian. Eventually, a proper Heraclid pedigree having been established for him, the somewhat disgruntled king was permitted to take part. It must be his aspirations that our northern neighbours copy. There is a 1940’s photo suggesting that they are especially proficient at the high jump, as it depicts residents of Skopje jumping for joy as they are liberated by the Bulgarian army. As an aside, the acts of the hellanodikae should not shock us. The vast majority of Greek club constitutions exclude members on the basis of regional descent. I remember as a teenager attending a general meeting of an islander organisation where it was debated that non-islanders should be excluded from the committee as in years to come, if strict quarantine laws were not followed, the president signing the letters of the organisation may end up being Mehmed Mahmud. Interestingly enough, no one seemed to ponder why Mehmed Mahmud would want to be bothered with this brotherhood in the first place and I recently attended a bizarre meeting of a Pontian organisation where the membership of persons with non-Pontian sounding names was called into question.
This insularity is what Victorian Minister for Sport and Youth affairs Mr James Merlino was referring to when, at the launch of the Council for Greeks Abroad’s Panhellenic Games, of which he his patron, he asked: “What is an Italian doing as patron of these most Hellenic of Games?” My riposte referred him to ancient Greek opportunism. During the Roman conquest, in an effort to appease the conquerors, hellanodikae dropped their racial criteria for participation and permitted the Romans to compete in the Olympics. They even went so far as to award Nero with the olive wreath crown, despite the fact that he had lost control of his chariot during his race and Minister Merlino’s participation in the Games should be viewed in like context. Sadly, the Minister shrugged off my invitation to join me in reviving the ancient Greek custom of rubbing our modern Panhellenic athletes down with olive oil and other exciting unguents.
Games have continued to play a vital role in Greek culture since ancient times. During the Ottoman occupation, freedom fighter, unable to stand the religious and racial intolerance of the Sultan’s regime, retreated to the mountains where, along with fighting a war of resistance, they engaged in competing with each other in the commission of amazing feats of strength. For them, and the modern Greek, sport is not just about excellence or glory. It is about freedom – the freedom that comes from knowing that with enough willpower and determination, one can achieve anything.
It is this proud sporting tradition that the Greek community brings to sports-mad Melbourne. Melbourne is a Greek city not only because it is sister to Thessaloniki and to a large Greek population but also because it is an Olympic city and thus partakes in the values and ideals of sport that have been cultivated for aeons. Greek-Australian athletes, among them gold-medallists like Michael Diamond, footballers like Steve Malaxos, Ange Christou and Anthony Koutoufides and even sporting gurus such as Lou Richards have all made enduring contributions to Australian sport.
For this reason, the Greek community should be exceedingly proud of the launch of the Panhellenic Games, which shall be held between 27-29 November this year, in multicultural, sporting Melbourne. What better way for young Greek Australians to celebrate the glorious tradition that underwrites both Greek and Australian culture – that of sporting competition. While Panhellenic means all the Greeks, the organising committee adopts a more benign interpretation of the term, one that defines Greeks not by race, but by an individual’s belief in fairness, tolerance, democracy and excellence (and voting for the right SAE president?). To this effect, the vast majority of sport loving Australians are Greek and the Panhellenic Games pay homage to them. This is after all, what the Council of Greeks Abroad should be all about – transcending cultural differences and creating close bonds of friendship between Greece and all those nations that Greek diasporans call home. We have a saying: όπου γης και πατρίς and our adherence to our most venerable traditions, such as sport and our willingness to share and celebrate them in this tolerant and vibrant multicultural polis underlies our commitment to Australia.
For all those budding or aspiring athletes aged between 18-30, a perusal of the Panhellenic Games facebook page, or the SAE Oceania website ( is a worthy endeavour as there are a vast array of events that promise to challenge and titillate contestants and observers alike.
George Orwell may have believed that: “Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all the rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence. In other words, it is war minus the shooting,” but I am positive he must have chanced upon a Greek community annual general meeting and mistook that for sport instead. Instead, having exhorted all and sundry to make the Panhellenic Games the success they rightfully deserve to be, I prefer this, from Howard Cosell: “Sports is the toy department of human life.” Let the Games begin.


First published in NKEE on 7 September 2009