On first night, Greece trades worry for wonderment ATHENS OLYMPICS

August 14, 2004|By Laura Vecsey

ATHENS - Greece's big day dawned, and the tone wasn't right. It was tabloid.

Poor Greece. For years, it faced skepticism and ridicule. Now this: The day the Olympics were set to begin and the back pages and the headlines all cried foul.

Two of its greatest Olympic stars had missed a drug test and were the subject of intense Hellenic Olympic Committee searches and emergency meetings of the International Olympic Committee.

Then this: Kostas Kenteris, the Olympic gold-medal sprinter, and Katerina Thanou, a silver medalist from the 2000 Summer Games, were in the hospital after a mysterious motorcycle accident.

By noon, the Greek citizens who had waited so long for these homecoming Olympics, who had bought tickets to see their national stars compete, were spinning fast enough to get permanently banned from the Bill O'Reilly show.

If the Greek track stars were indeed banned from competition by the IOC for missing mandatory drug tests - especially while hospitalized for injuries from some late-night mishap - it would be the fault of the United States.

See, many Greeks figured the Americans would do something to make sure big track stars such as Tim Montgomery and Marion Jones weren't the only ones tainted or brought down by drug scandals.

But if dawn and daylight were harsh for Greece and its Olympic reputation, relief would come.

The plight of Kenteris and Thanou will play out in the newspapers and on television. It follows a terrible tragedy involving a Greek judo athlete and her boyfriend - the former who fell off a balcony and the other who threw himself off in apparent agonized guilt.

This is all the fodder of scripts that date back to antiquity. It is also the fodder of our insane times, the wildly mundane stuff of modern life.

In the meantime, there was a greater goal to try to achieve in Athens. Leave it to the willful Greeks to persevere.

By dusk, the tabloid dawn had been snuffed from view.

By dusk, a new Olympic headline was being written:

Bravo, Greece.

In a world devoid of events and spectacles that can take our breath away - for the right reasons - Greece delivered.

This wasn't shock and awe that took place in front of 72,000 at Olympic Stadium and billions more throughout the world.

It was better. How about stirring, affirming, safe?

Fourteen years after good, old Greece first set out to bring the Olympics home again, it finally became official. The sun set over the haze-shrouded hills and the heat dissipated. A quiet anticipation set in at the stadium to see how Greece would represent itself and its inventive role in ancient history.

Wow! The flickering flashlights waving in the air and the ingenuity of the Greek people lit up the night.

The new message was clear: Here we are, gathered together for a big, fat Greek celebration.

All that fretting, all the worry, all those over-budget costs and unprecedented spending on security, yet look at what we got.

The opening ceremony was a refresher course on what civilization was like closer to its dawn, when the Greeks looked within and found a limitlessness of possibility, of thought, of philosophy, of physical strength and endurance.

The ceremony was a startling testimony to all those discoveries: art, science, philosophy, mathematics, politics. It was a refresher course on how deep and limitless is human potential.

How grand last night's opening ceremony was.

How smart, how impressive.

If it didn't cost $7 billion to pull off such an Olympic event, if it didn't require the IOC going to the whip to get the host country to hustle and make deadline, we might campaign for more of these little shindigs.


Why not?

For three hours last night, we could almost succumb to an overdue bout of amnesia.

What kind of world is this again? A world full of conflict, pain, strife?

All it took were a few boos for the United States and cheers for the Iraqi delegation to demonstrate the political, religious and diplomatic traumas the world is suffering.

All it took was to read how an Iranian judo world champion, Arash Miresmaeli, withdrew as flag bearer and from Olympic competition rather than face an Israeli opponent in the first round.

Still, the pulse of the Olympic spirit was surprisingly strong.

It pounded out into the night air via the drumbeats of the Greek volunteers who kicked off the ceremony, banging out a heartbeat to remind us of life, our commonality.

We need these athletes to show us how sport unites, said IOC president Jacques Rogge.

We need these Games to affirm peace, tolerance, brotherhood, he said.

Soon enough, too soon, in fact, we'll all snap back into tabloid mode. Soon enough, the limitless stream of conflicts - from the petty to the insurmountable - will start up again.

Soon enough, the plights of embattled Greek track stars Kenteris and Thanou will take up the spotlight. The specifics of their actions will be ferreted out, published, debated. The implications and ramifications will be analyzed and argued.

The mundane will resume its place and priority, but for a few hours last night, Greece was the center of the universe. It held up its past as a means for us to examine some of our greatest qualities as human beings: builders, thinkers, citizens, athletes.

It left discussion about our greatest failures for a different moment.

It was a nice break.

Bravo, Greece.

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