AHI Executive Director’s Feature Article on his Account of Athens 2004 Olympics Experience Published in The Hellenic News of America
Washington, DC—The following feature article by AHI Executive Director Nick Larigakis regarding his Olympics experience appeared in The Hellenic News of America November 2004 Issue, page 48-50.
Winning Gold: One Volunteer’s Magical Olympic Experience
By Nick Larigakis
It’s 3:45 p.m. (Athens time) August 2, 2004, and my Lufthansa plane is on final approach into Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport. I have made this trip countless times before, but this time feels different. It feels special, it feels out of the ordinary, it feels like history in the making. Maybe it’s the enthusiasm of the Olympic hopefuls from the U.S. swimming team on my right, or the laughter of Argentina’s soccer players on the left. Or maybe it’s the adrenaline rush I feel when I think that Athens will play host to all the world once again. As the plane glides down, I can’t help but recall the lyrics of the 1970’s hit song by the Steve Miller Band Jet Airliner, "feeling mighty coming down."
Right from the gate, energy is in the air. Hordes of volunteers in their smart looking uniforms run about, eager to assist the scores of athletes streaming in from around the world. Airport employees scurry about clearing lanes of travel, and the baggage porters are piling up luggage like it’s going out of style. It’s the middle of the day, but the Athens airport feels like Times Square on New Year’s Eve.
A three-hour delay flying out of Washington affords me no time to think or relax now. It is 5:30 p.m. and I need to be at the 2004 Olympic Offices in 30 minutes. Thank God my good friend Yiorgo volunteered to pick me up at the airport. Like the genuinely hospitable Greek he is, Yiorgo insists on carrying my luggage, he insists on buying me something to eat, and he most importantly insists on putting the pedal to the metal as we race towards Athens.
Welcome to the Olympics!
We arrive at the Athens 2004 offices and are amazed: the line of Olympics volunteers is out the proverbial door! We all patiently await to squeeze in and take our turn. Nothing like being in a dressing "booth" bickering over pant sizes when you haven’t slept in over 24 hours! An exhausting 3 hours later I come out to find my loyal friend Yiorgo sleeping in his car, but still waiting for me. A true friend who went above and beyond the call of friendship, he waited even though I didn’t ask him to wait. But that’s Yiorgo.
After a short night of sleep, my next stop is the island of Skopelos and my hometown of Glossa. My plan is to go there for the next 9 days and enjoy the pleasures that only a Greek island can serve up: warm sun, beautiful pristine waters to swim in, and good food and fellowship.
Driving my rental car out of the city very early the next morning, I come upon a horrifying scene—a traffic jam in Athens! How could this be this time of year? Shouldn’t everyone be on the islands already? I left Washington, DC and the infamous Beltway to escape this sort of gridlock, but now here I am, caught in the middle of it. I look at my watch and quickly realize that I am on the cusp of missing my ferry, which will cost me two days in Skopelos. But why this mess? And why is the left lane completely empty?
I turn on the radio and learn the news: the new "Olympic Lane" restrictions commenced just this morning, and only vehicles with special decals can use that lane, which resembles the "HOV" lanes we have in the States. This is causing the traffic jam that threatens my vacation, but rather than getting angry about it, I am perplexed, even amazed. What is incredible is that the notorious Athenian drivers are abiding by the restrictions! This small gesture serves to underscore what I will soon realize on a large scale: the Athenian mentality has changed. They are determined to do whatever it takes to secure the success of the Olympic games, no matter how large or small that measure might be. I must say, however, that with Skopelos on my mind, I am tempted to use the lane. I don’t. And I even make the Ferry.
I come back to Athens on August 11th, recharged, tanned, and as excited as ever. During the two days right before the games, there is a buzz on the street and an electricity in the air that is difficult to express in words. The anticipation reminds me of the feeling that many children experience when Christmas is near. This city with its glorious past and eternal history is about to write a whole new chapter. The enthusiasm is so great that, as I look at the Acropolis on the night before the games commence, I think that even Plato and Aristotle, watching from their immortal perches high above, must feel like kids again.
8:00 p.m. August, 13, 2004 is finally here. Let the games begin. The Opening ceremony is spectacular. I feel honored to be here with my daughter, Panayiota, enjoying this magnificent event. I know that we will share this moment forever. Our seats are only 16 rows from the center of the field, and so we are right in the middle of the action. From time to time, familiar and even famous faces pass by. "Wasn’t that Nia Vardalos who just went by?," I ask. "Hey Nia, how are you?"
I think back to when I first heard about the volunteer program for the Athens games. It took me all of 5 seconds to decide that I definitely wanted to be part of this Olympiad. This would be the most important moment in the modern history of Greece, and I wanted to be there to experience the moment in a unique way. As an American of Hellenic descent who has dedicated my professional career to facilitating a strong relationship between Greece and the U.S., I also felt it was my responsibility to contribute in whatever small way I could towards the success of the games and towards the strengthening of ties between the two countries. I was thus pleased when, even prior to the start of the Olympic games, reporter Jim Handly of the local NBC News affiliate, WRC 4 in Washington, D.C., interviewed me for a segment broadcast on television in the U.S. on August 6, 2004. I sensed then, as I sense now, that these are momentous times for Hellenes everywhere.
Dressing in my volunteer uniform for the first time brings a sense of pride, responsibility, and frankly, a little trepidation. How will I perform my duties? Will I be able to communicate with someone from another country without offending him? My thoughts are many, and my fears are too. Not to mention those darn shorts just don’t fit right!
"Take Nick to Sophia and have her show him what to do." These are the blunt instructions given by our fearless leader Yianni to his assistant Tasso, when I arrive at the Olympic Indoor Hall (OIH) for my first day as a volunteer. As I enter the seating area, the gymnastics competition is well underway. I find myself completely mesmerized by the activity going on all around. This is my first time witnessing gymnastics live, at any level. There are apparatus throughout the four corners of the arena and many events occurring simultaneously. It is a feast for the senses: a gymnast on the balance beam here, a whirling dervish on the horse there, and cheers in the air everywhere. It is clear to me right at the start: this is a great place to be a volunteer and an even better place to be a fan.
My official job title is "Protocol Venue Attendant." This position, incidentally, compelled my appearance at a mandatory one-day orientation session in Athens in late June, where the warnings were few in quantity, but stern in nature. Be courteous, be polite, and don’t "you" be the one responsible for creating an international Olympic crisis! I also learned that it’s considered offensive to scratch your head in the presence of someone from Japan. As I meet many Japanese in Athens, however, I begin to wonder, how exactly do the Japanese scratch their heads?
Sophia is very courteous. She explains that our 30 person protocol team will work in 2 shifts of 15 persons per shift. There is a day shift and an evening shift. I am assigned to the evening shift, which begins around 5 p.m. and concludes when all the competitions are done, usually between 10:30 and 11:30 p.m. each day.
We are responsible for approximately 500 VIP seats, divided in multiple sections, and for the Olympic Family lounge. The VIP’s are made up of International Olympic Committee members, numerous National Olympic Committees members, government officials, special guests, friends, celebrities, family members of athletes, and others. There is open seating on a first-come, first-serve basis. The tricky part, however, is that there are VIP’s and then there are VIP’s! The way we can differentiate is by code letters printed on each person’s accreditation badge.
Arriving for work requires us to go through a security check. We also receive a food coupon each day. The coupon entitles you to two bottles of water and a cold sandwich or hot meal in the volunteer’s cafeteria. The cafeteria also provides a thin assortment of food/snacks that you can purchase.
The food is atrocious. It is, in fact, probably the most disappointing aspect of the Games. Ironically, if there is one thing for which Greece is known, it is the food. Yet, on this issue, the Games of the XXVIII Olympiad do not win gold. Nor, for that matter, do they even win bronze!
The VIP family lounge is another area we are instructed to monitor. Access is strictly limited to those persons who have the magical number "6" on their accreditation badge. Our protocol team all has the "6." The lounge is great, because it has televisions whereby we catch glimpses of other Olympic events and an open area to indulge in a light snack or drink. The lounge is also conducive to mingling with other members of the Olympic family. It is here that a member of the Senegalese National Olympic Committee tries to negotiate for one of my three volunteer polo shirts. These shirts are in high demand because they unique and attractive, and because they cannot be bought. They require volunteer service.
Thankfully, the "incidents" we observe are few. It is clear, however, that some members of the Olympic family could have benefited from attending the one-day protocol seminar that many of us took in June. Of note are the members of the Kazakhstan security detail and delegation, who accompany their president everywhere. These guys look like they are former KGB agents. All are tall, broad and muscular, and they remind me of "Drago" from Rocky IV. "I must break you, Rocky!" is all I can envision them saying every time they walk by. Nonetheless, I stand my ground, most of the time anyway. Hey, I have a daughter to get through college!
My zeal for adhering to the rules of my post, and the fact that I know a number of the celebrities who visit our area, including U.S. Ambassador Thomas Miller, Alternate Cultural Minister Fani Petrallia, and Pasok President, George Papandreou, quickly endear me to my fellow volunteer colleagues. I am very pleased about this, since most of the volunteers are in their mid-twenties. I am impressed with their maturity, dedication and professionalism.
Because of my familiarity with some of the VIP’s and my willingness to be firm with them when necessary, my team leaders decide to post me at the "Super VIP Seats" for most of my volunteer service. These are 25 prime seats in the middle of the arena, and my job is to make sure that no one from the adjacent VIP seating ventures over to sit there. As I mentioned, all VIP’s are equal, but some are more equal than others! My instructions are to ensure that there are always empty in case a "Super VIP" decides to visit our venue. The Super VIP’s who sit there during my shifts include Athens 2004 President Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, Queen Sophia of Spain, President of the International Olympics Committee Jacques Rogge, U.S. Ambassador Thomas Miller, Athens Mayor Dora Bakoyianni, and of course, the omnipresent and all-powerful President of Kazakhstan, with his retinue of Dragos, to name just a few.
We see Olympic royalty, and then true royalty as well. Nadia Comenici appears, although she is no longer the lithe child who won gold in 1976. Queen Sophia of Spain and her entourage are frequent guests, as are the former Greek Royal couple, Constantine and Anna Maria. Our location overlaps with the media section, and so we encounter media royalty as well. I run into Christine Brennan of USA TODAY, Michael Wilbon of the Washington Post and William Rhoden of the New York Times, to name but a few.
During the basketball competition, I meet NBA Commissioner David Stern and former NBA player and current television analyst, Doug Collins. Thanks to Collins, I am able to understand the formerly indecipherable time-out rules of international basketball! The style of basketball is definitely different from that played in the NBA, as our USA Dream Team finds out all too quickly. They unfortunately never seem to be quite in sync with the international game.
I am once again interviewed by NBC 4, this time by telephone, during a live news broadcast to gain my impressions on the games. Again, I feel a great sense of pride, being able to contribute even in a small way towards building a better, stronger bridge between the United States and Greece.
Most nights, we end our prime time shift around 11:30 p.m. It is then time to head to "Monastaraki," to join the throngs that crowd Plaka every night, to eat, drink and be merry until all hours of the morning. I am amazed at how many people I run into whom I know from the U.S., and how easy it is to strike up conversations with people all around. There are many Americans, and at least the ones that I meet and speak with have nothing but praise for Athens and the games. This stands in stark contrast to all of the press reports from the U.S. media prior to the games. I feel great pride in knowing that Greece is exceeding expectations and proving all the naysayers wrong.
Incredibly, I find myself going home practically every night around 5:00 a.m. in the morning. How am I going to go back to the U.S. and adjust to sleeping at 11:00 p.m.? A nice problem to have, I suppose.
Of all the wonderful moments in Athens, two stand out in particular. The first is witnessing the gold crowning of Greek gymnast Dimosthenis Tabakos on rings. While sitting at my post, next to Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki for the entire rings competition performance, I experience tension, drama and excitement beyond belief. Tabakos leads heading into the final round, where he competes first. He gets a very good score and is in command of the gold. But seven more challengers remain. All Hellenes are on edge.
As we wait for the scores to be displayed after each challenger completes his routine, the tension is unbearable for the majority of the 19,000 faithful who are mainly rooting for the Greek gymnast. And while under normal circumstances, I couldn’t tell you the difference between floor exercises and rhythmic gymnastics, I find myself strangely enough being able to notice little nuances in the other gymnasts’ routines. A little toe out of position here, a little tremble in the arm there, and so on. As we get closer to the end, all of us keep wistfully looking at each other for assurance that it will be O.K. (Ola Kala) and Tabakos will win gold. One challenger, however, comes real close.
At last, the gods are with us tonight and victory is ours. No Greek tragedy tonight! Tabakos wins!!! Daskalaki and I jump up and down and "high five" each other! That is true, whether or not she is willing to admit it in the future! People all around us hug, and some are overcome by emotion when the Greek national anthem plays and the Greek flag ascends higher and higher above. I know that the energy and emotion present this evening will remain with me forever.
A second moment I will treasure forever is being on the field, to help with "Athlete Crowd Control," during the closing ceremony. Although I had purchased a ticket for this event, my response to being asked to participate directly in the closing ceremony is immediate and unwavering: "Of course you can count me in," I tell my team leader. If I can handle a bunch of Dragos, I can handle this, I say.
Being on the field this night is an out of body experience. It is totally surreal to me that I should be here. Many of the world’s best athletes are only inches away. I have the opportunity to meet with many of them and even to several women athletes from China and Canada in an impromptu game of volleyball. In another magical moment, a group of fifteen female athletes from Brazil engage us in a game of cat-and-mouse trying to break our human chain barrier. The whole evening is magical and unforgettable.
Not surprisingly, a great deal of romance is in the air during these Olympics. There are many beautiful people everywhere, from the athletes to the spectators to the volunteers. All well tanned and dressed to kill. This only helps facilitate the primal instincts. Thousands of people are meeting each other for the first time and, in the case of the volunteers, are working closely with each other for hours on end.
Passions are bound to develop. Many would claim it is infatuation—true. Many are looking to have fun for the short time there—true. But for some, I am absolutely certain, this feeling we call love transcends the moment. And for some, I am certain, they find their lifelong partner at these games. Just like after the snowstorms in America that sequester people at home for an extended period usually ending in an increase of births nine months later, it will be interesting to see what the birth rates in Greece are nine months after the conclusion of these games.
Ultimately, the true winner of these games is Greece and her people. For over two long weeks, they proved the naysayers wrong! Athens hosted a stellar Olympic games. Many would say unparalleled. The weather was magnificent, the venues great, the traffic non-existent, and the people as friendly as can be. Most importantly, the country that gave birth to the Olympic movement hosted, once again, the world’s premiere sporting spectacle uniting all mankind in peace and brotherhood.
For over two weeks, the world’s undivided attention was focused on Greece. Her people showed the world that they are capable of glorious things when they unite in the name of Hellenism and the greater good of mankind. Their glorious history has proven this time and again, from their battles against Persia to their courageous stand against the forces of fascism in World War II, to their courageous and successful effort against terrorism in securing these Olympic games. Hellenes and Philhellenes (friends of Greeks) everywhere should be proud.
"Carpe diem!" It is for Greece now to seize this opportunity and capitalize on the success and goodwill generated by these Olympic games. All indications, even at this early stage, are that next year’s tourist season will be a breakthrough year, with potentially tens of thousands of new visitors coming to Greece for the first time. The country needs to welcome them the same way it welcomed the visitors for the 2004 games. There are many other opportunities that Greece needs to capitalize on, from business opportunities to political ones, as well. The time is now.
On a personal level, for this volunteer, the experience is one that I will never forget. The memories will remain alive in my mind and soul forever. The sporting events and the ambience were certainly extraordinary. For me, however, what will always stand out most are the wonderful people whom I met and with whom I spent time. Foremost is the group of volunteers with whom I had the privilege of working for two weeks. These young men and women were integral part of the overall success of the games, and I feel especially proud to have been associated with them. I extend my best wishes, appreciation and respect to Yanni, Tasso, Maria, Annette, George, Christo, Christina, Sophia, Hara, and Dora, and to all those who made my attendance at the Athens 2004 games an unforgettable experience.
In my heart, I believe that these young men and women embody the true spirit of Greece and represent the future for this proud country. I thus know that we can all be assured that the future of Greece will shine brightly. The Olympic volunteers whom I met today will be Greece’s business and political leaders tomorrow, and I for one am confident that we will see a bright and beautiful future for Greece, just as we saw a bright and beautiful Olympic games.
My Olympic experience ends early on September 7th, at 6:20 a.m. when the wheels of my Lufthansa plane lift off runway 03L at Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport. As my plane starts to ascend over Athens, I look out the window to my left. The city is asleep below as darkness still covers her. However, to my right looking out toward the east, a very distinct brightness ushers in the new day’s first light. Very soon, behind me, Athens will welcome a new dawn and embark on a new day that will be as great and glorious as the greatest and most glorious days of its past.
Greece lived and loved the 2004 Olympic games, and they changed her forever. I lived and loved those games as well, and I too am changed forever.
Nick Larigakis is the Executive Director of the American Hellenic Institute in Washington, D.C.
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AHI Executive Director’s Feature Article on his Account of Athens 2004 Olympics Experience Published in The Hellenic News of America