- Wrestling with the Ancients: Modern Greek Identity and the Olympics
Alexander Kitroeff traces his early awareness of Greece's unique connection with the modern Olympics back to his schooldays, when the teacher told the class that 6 April was to be "Olympic Games day" (a piece of nationalist idealism dating from 1966). He sets out to show how Greece has experienced a "dual identity, as heir to the classical tradition, and as a modern European state" (more precisely, in the earlier parts of the story, an aspiring modern European state, the Olympics being seen as a means of achieving modernity). Extending this aim, Kitroeff argues that Greece maintained a privileged place in the Olympics movement because it saw its role as both the affirmation of the ancient heritage and a means to gain international recognition—which implied efficiency, modernity and the civilized values attributed to more advanced European states. Seen in this light, the Olympic Games, whether of 1896 or 2004, were a challenge which Greece could not refuse, whatever the cost to the taxpayer—though Harilaos Trikoupis came near to refusing it in 1895!
Kitroeff's general analysis is in my view correct. He writes that "ever since its establishment almost two centuries ago, modern Greece has merged a deeply seated sense of continuity with ancient Greece into an equally deeply felt belief that it is part of a "civilized" (that is developed) Europe. Coubertin invited Greeks to play both roles in the context of the international Olympic movement. ". . . Coubertin himself became the first victim of the Greeks' overzealousness; ultimately however, the Greeks found their appropriate place as the guardians of tradition, even to Coubertin's satisfaction."
Kitroeff sees the 2004 Olympics as the "ultimate test of Greece's ability to balance an Olympics steeped in tradition with one run efficiently." He traces this theme through the origins of the modern Olympic movement, the Athens Games of 1896 and 1906, the development of the Hellenic Olympic Committee (HOC), the appropriation of Greek antiquity and Hellenic imagery to Nazi purposes at the Berlin Olympics of 1936 (where Kitroeff treats the HOC harshly), Karamanlis's proposals in 1976 and 1980 to "redeem" the politicized Olympics by repatriating them to Greece, the failure of Greece's bid for the 1996 centennial Olympics, the successful bid for 2004, and the preparations for the 2004 games. Even though we know the outcome, the later chapters generate suspense.
The book was published in the spring of 2004, so that Kitroeff's "Afterword" [End Page 199] describes the 2004 Olympics as a turning point in Greece's relationship with the Olympic movement without being able to assess how far Greek aims were achieved. In the event they were amply achieved. Greece showed herself capable of managing this formidably complex task efficiently, hospitably (for which the volunteers deserve much credit), and with élan, while presenting through the opening and closing ceremonies a strikingly attractive image of Greece which for the most part avoided cliché and sterile antiquarianism. All this was no mean achievement, and—satisfactorily—a kick in the pants for the international media which had predicted doom. Even so, the balance sheet of the Olympics remains hard to strike, partly because of the costs still to be borne by the Greek taxpayer, partly because of the environmental effects of new construction, and partly because of the lingering consequences of the bad publicity generated by the fraught processes of preparation which Kitroeff describes in his closing chapters.
In working his way through this material, Kitroeff weaves a number of subsidiary themes into his main narrative on Greek identity, national aims and self perception. One is the development of Olympic sports in Greece, which he argues is relevant to the claim to be taken seriously as a privileged member of the Olympic family. The results he quotes are depressingly bad until the early 1980s (with the exception of 1896 and 1906, where for particular reasons Greece harvested a good crop of medals).
This is not so surprising given the...