My very first impression of Greece, my very first thought as my plane came in to land on a hot August day in 2004 was this: “They have mountains!”
If, at this point, you’re imagining what an imbecile I was, you wouldn’t be far from the truth. My first glimpse of Greece had happened thanks to a series of events which I could never have imagined, and since Greece was not at that time anywhere on my list of places to visit, I had done no research whatsoever about the country I was arriving in. Looking out of an airplane window, I had no idea then that I was getting the first look at the country that would one day be my home, the country that I fell in love with, by way of falling in love with one of its children, the soil where my own children would take their first steps.
What I was doing when I first stepped off that plane was that I was making my way, at my own expense and in my own time, to volunteer at Athens 2004. Ordinary Greeks I would later meet on my trips to and from the Marcopolo shooting centre were very curious about this. Why, if I had absolutely no connection to Greece, had I shelled out for a high-season plane ticket to come all this way and ensure the smooth running of the Games which I had no personal connection to?
“They pay your hotel though, right?” Nope. We got no expenses covered, apart from free food and drink at our venues and free travel in the city. I was lucky enough to stay with a friend from university (she’s now the godmother of my younger son). And my answer to the bewildered question of why was this: Because I love the Olympics.
I’ve always loved the Olympics. Seoul 1988 are the first games I remember. The Games were a big deal in my house. Both my parents had been athletic but somehow gave birth to four couch potatoes. They never missed watching the Olympics. After that it was Barcelona in 1992, where that summer my cousins and I would give each other stirring renditions of Freddie Mercury’s (“Indian!” my Indian mother proudly pointed out) Barcelona sung into hairbrushes, sometimes with paper mustaches stuck on our faces.
Then came Atlanta in 1996, when I was old enough to appreciate the significance of Muhammad Ali lighting the torch. What a moment. I watched the opening ceremony of Sydney 2000 at my parent’s house, and the closing ceremony sitting on the carpet of a family friend’s house in Cardiff, days before I started university, because in typical Asian parent style, my parents were horrified that I had applied for university at a non commutable distance from home and so had immediately located someone they knew in the city.
Sandwiched in between it all was sporting greatness. I knew I would never reach those heights, for a start, I was much too lazy and unathletic. So the next best thing was to go to the Olympics. I dreamed of going to the opening ceremony, any opening ceremony, thinking of the years of Olympic opening and closing ceremonies I had watched, envious of the noise and the crowds and the people lucky enough to be there, and I would think “One day, I’ll be there too.”
And so, at the end of a bad 2003, I went online to look for tickets to attend Athens 2004. The Olympics were finally swinging close enough to home to make attending them something that wouldn’t bankrupt me entirely, and I wanted to go. But then, once on the site, something else caught my eye.
A big button, emblazoned with the word “Volunteer”.
I had no idea you could do that. That sounded amazing! I’d get to be inside the Games without needing any athletic prowess whatsoever! And so I applied. And that’s how I ended up stepping off a plane into the blinding heat of August 2004, to mixed reactions of Athenians who told me what a bad idea the games were, to others who were more enthusiastic.
But none of it mattered as I sat in the stalls during the final dress rehearsal of the opening ceremony, which my Greek friend had wrangled for me after hours of belligerence on various telephone lines, her argument being that a foreigner who comes all that way to support the Greek games deserves a ticket to the final dress rehearsal. I was so overcome at fulfilling a lifelong ambition that I spent much of the ceremony wiping away my tears of happiness. In fact, I still cry whenever I watch the Athens 2004 opening ceremony, because I still consider it the best of them all.
As for me, nothing could dampen my spirit. Apart from the friends I made during those days, my destiny was set on a course I could never have dreamed of. The shooting centre venue manager ended up becoming my husband, and here I am today, 12 years later, now calling Athens my home.
Perhaps it’s because, in spite of the world we live in, I really want to believe that it’s not such a terrible place. Every Olympic year, we get blanket coverage of how terrible it all is, that the games are a waste of money, a beacon of corruption and so overflowing with drugs that it would make Colombian cocaine baron blush. The host city receives such scrutiny and, often, derision, that the Olympics now face a new problem in that no one really wants to host them any more. To this end, it’s been argued that Greece should host them permanently, and I would love that.
In Athens, the coverage was about how the country was not ready. And, even if you put aside what an economic disaster they turned out to be, Athens was not ready. On our first training day, we toured the shooting centre in tight-jawed shock as our superiors waved us around what was supposed to be the shooting centre in two days’ times. It wasn’t finished. Workers welded and hammered around us and we gulped in polite terror – shooting was going to happen here? But when we rolled up for the first shift two days later, it was all ready.
For Beijing, coverage circled around the awful air quality, the corruption and violation of rights and poor water quality of the open swimming venues. Sound familiar? Brazil has been put through the same battery of misery mongering – they’re not ready, bad water, it’s not safe, gentrification etc. London was about how the games had cost way too much and caused the gentrification of East London, making it unaffordable to those who used to live there.
I’m not going to argue with any of that coverage, because the fact is that it’s true. But there’s also another aspect that gets ignored. I know because I was there, I was part of that face of the Olympics which so few wrote about. The human side of the games is the ultimate feel-good story.
The Olympics, stripped of the misery and scandal, are the ultimate gathering of the tribes of the world. They are the place where hope triumphs over adversity (and, sometimes hope triumphs over the reality that you’re so bad you’re good). The Olympics are where people from around the world travel to one point at their own expense for no other reason than that they love the games. Lifelong friendships are formed and, sometimes as in my case, lifelong partnerships.
I know what it felt like to be inside the Olympics, and I’ll never forget that feeling. When I recall that feeling, I don’t feel any of the negativity which persistently surrounds the Olympics, the world’s media bah-humbugging their way to the opening ceremony and then gleefully recording every failure. I just feel the glory and the magic, shaking hands with people who were the best in the world at what they did and hoping that some of their brilliance rubbed off onto you. I remember high-fiving friends from all around the world and sharing stories with other volunteers who had previous games under their belt. I remember happiness and the sense of wonder that got to be a part of something so big.
I loved the Olympics long before they permanently changed the course of my life, and I continue to love for the original reasons I loved them. For the human element, the winning athlete running their nation’s flag around the track, the message of hope they bring in the form of a flame lit in Ancient Olympia (again, in Greece this ceremony is widely mocked, though I love it, and would love to see it live one day), the volunteer who goes home proudly wearing their uniform on the flight, and now that Greece is home, the pride I feel when Greece leads the Parade of Nations at the opening ceremony. It’s the story I’ll bore my own grandkids with: I was there. I felt the Olympic magic. It’s something you can’t capture or explain unless you’ve felt it yourself. That’s why I will always love the Olympics.
Rio 2016, good luck!