Last year I ticked off two things on the ‘must do list’; attend an Olympics was the first one as I am sure it was for many of you as well and whilst it may only have been the first day of the beach volleyball, the ticket clearly said that it was the Olympic beach volleyball!
I was gutted to be leaving London just as the party was starting and so upon returning too Manila, I invested in a pay-per-view package for the remainder of London 2012, which saw me rise in the wee hours of the Philippine day and return to bed doing the Mobot and such like, often feeling proud, nostalgic and at times, a little homesick.
Such feelings were further enhanced when the Paralympics came round a few weeks later. Depending on who you believe, the Greeks had pre-sold 200,000 tickets for the 2004 Paralympics, the Chinese 500,000 four years later – London had racked up 1.4 million before the start and pretty much sold out everything else thereafter!
The quad-annular spectacle has always been my favourite sporting event since childhood and more so, as my overall interest in football has waned with the rise of rampant commercialization, diving, cheating and the somewhat amateurish running of the sport by various governing bodies. That is not to say that the Olympics are beyond such criticisms and what with golf making its debut in Rio 2016, how long before Formula One starts knocking on the door?
Cynicism aside, my interest in the Olympics is such, that I must confess to being an ‘anorak’ when it comes to visiting Olympic stadiums. For me, there is something evocative about great sporting arenas when they are empty, as one conjures up memories of great feats of human endeavour and excitement, which enthral the masses and captivate us lesser mortals. Since 2002, whilst travelling with my mate Kevin McSweeney, he and I have been in a battle to visit all the Olympic stadiums, which has spilled over to the venues of FIFA World Cup finals.
However, there is a bit of extra kudos given to actually getting inside the stadium, by means other then paying! Such memorable feats have seen me walk into the Los Angeles Coliseum (1932 and 1948 Olympics) and Montreal Olympic Stadium (1976 Olympics) by pretending to be a worker on both occasions. Whilst ‘paying’ in the conventional sense is frowned upon, ‘facility payments’ when necessary, are not! Mexico City Azteca Stadium (FIFA World Cups 1970 and 1986) or lying that you have a flight back to London tonight and if you can’t get in now, that’s your chance gone of visiting the Yokohama International Stadium (FIFA World Cup 2002).
Some of course, have literally been on my doorstep as it were. Wembley can be seen from the front window of my home and for many years, White City was where my dad and I parked when going to QPR. But when you cannot get in by fair means or foul, then getting as close as you can will just have to do. Of these, my favourite sightings remains the Estadio Centario in Montevideo, Uruguay, venue for the inaugural FIFA World Cup in 1930. Kevin and I had cased the joint and there was neither an obvious official way in nor person to ‘discuss’ entry with, so we decided to see if we could gain entry through what looked to be unlocked doors. Kevin tried a few handles then came to one that seemed to have some give. As it turned out, it had a lot of give as the bloody handle came off in his hand, to which the cry ‘Leggit!‘ rang out.
I turned round to see Kevin running, whilst holding exhibit one of the prosecution’s case against us, before his customary calm returned and he replaced the handle back whence it came before we sauntered away quickly from the crime scene. Currently, I am up to 17 Olympic stadiums, with Kevin not to far behind. Such is his determination, when I was based in Atlanta back in 2005; he visited under the guise of coming to see me. However, no sooner had I driven out of the airport and he opened with an enquiry of ‘When are we going to Turner Field (Olympics 1996)?’ As for FIFA World Cup venues, I think we’re neck and neck on 14. Boys eh?
If going to the Olympics was on the to do list, then so was visiting Athens and last year I also ticked that box as well.
The Olympics are rooted in ancient Greece, with the first games held in Olympia in 776BC and hosted every four years thereafter. The games were a chance to honour the Greek gods and acted as a period of time when any and all hostilities should cease to allow focus on the games. Then along came the Romans, who promptly put a stop to it all and there the Olympics lay until the 1850s when Dr. William Brookes, an Englishman no less, revived the notion of athletic events with the title ‘Olympic’ applied in a place called Much Wenlock, Shropshire (hence one of the names of the 2012 Olympic mascots, the other mascot was called Manderville celebrated the first Paralympics at Stoke Manderville).
However, all the glory of reviving the Olympics have been heaped on a Frenchman named Baron de Coubertin. The Baron prompted by Dr. Brookes, knew that the ancient games saw the youth of Greece called upon to enter the games for the pride of their hometown areas and to showcase their athletic prowess. He was also aware that during the period of an ancient Olympic games, a truce was called on all wars and disputes and as there had been troubled times at the latter part of the 19th century, he felt that the spirit of the Olympics would act as a catalyst for peace and building bridges between nations.
Of course, whilst Greece was the ideal setting to host the first games, the Greeks then as now, didn’t have an urn to piss in and with their economy staring into the abyss of bankruptcy, the cost of hosting the games seemed beyond them until a couple of Greek philanthropists stepped in and paid for the renovations of the magnificent Panathenaic Stadium, probably from all the wealth accumulated from not paying tax for all I know!
As de Coubertin and his team set about organising the inaugural modern Olympic games, an idea grew that a new event should be introduced and one that is as Greek as kebabs; the marathon. Legend has it that following the routing of the Persians at Marathon, a general ordered one of his troops to stop slacking and run the 42 kilometres back to Athens and inform of the good news. So poor Pheidippides, unaided by isotonic drinks or cheering crowds, ran back to Athens, broke the good news and promptly keeled over and died on the spot.
The fever with which the event was greeted among the Greeks of 1896 was surpassed on the day, when running to the finish line in the Panatheniac stadium, 65,000 Greeks suddenly realised their man was going to win gold. Interestingly whilst visiting the stadium itself, it seems the games of Paris 1900 and St. Louis 1904 were rather damp squibs in comparison and in the eight years after the first games, the lack of interest the games seemed to generate, threatened the games very continuance.
And then the Olympics ‘came home’ to London in 1908 and at last, some positive momentum. Indeed they came home again in 1948 after the devastation of WWII and as anyone who attended the recent gala in East London will likely attest, we have somewhat shaken it up again and just how Rio tops 007 jumping out of a chopper with QEII is hard to imagine.
So what of the legacy in Athens today? The venue of the 1896 games is resplendent and in all its glory, but the 2004 stadium looks forlorn in comparison. The Greek economy as we know, is in an utter mess and of course, much blame for that lies with the Greeks themselves, albeit that they think their woes emanate from the offices of Goldman Sachs and that they are now under the authority of Berlin!
But having had a wonderful break in the Greek capital, I would heartedly recommend a visit, certainly out of season, to anyone interested in visiting a quite brilliant city with much to see, eat, do, drink and with people so ridiculously friendly. To be frank, neither Catherine nor I wanted to say goodbye to the city of Athena.
However, there is one aspect of Athens that is something that should be of concern to each and every one of us, graffiti!
The Olympics is about calling the youth of all nations and whilst Americans may have invented teenagers, the honouring of youth is Greek in its roots. And yet, so many Greek youth cannot get a job. Unemployment among 15-25 year olds is around 33% and with so many fighting for so few vacancies, the tension and anger has and will spill over. Graffiti, bar some wanton exceptions, is often a way youth express their frustrations and nowhere is that more evident then in Athens. It was like seeing pictures of New York in the 70s and 80s and to be frank, it was more noticeable when it was not there!
So many young people today are battling from the day they go to school, conscious of the need to get expensively acquired qualifications to such an extent, that the debt they accumulate whilst being educated is often out of kilter with the employment they eventually secure. And yet, the reality for many of this generation is that they might never get into the career they hoped and worked so hard to qualify for. Here in Manila, many young people have jobs, but they are on short-term contracts and so they are neither engaged in the company’s wellbeing, receive training, acquire meaningful experience and operate without any proper job security. This plight is across most of the world and youth unemployment and under-employment are new phenomenons that can only cause problems further down the line for them and for all of us.
Anyone who has had to recruit for a job vacancy will know that many CVs are staggering in their breadth and where such a candidate would have bagged the job at a canter back in the day, now they are but one of many.
Frankly, I feel sorry as I do angry for so many young people today. Those of us of a certain age born before the early 1970s are probably the last generation that grew up actually enjoying ourselves compared to the worries and concern harboured by many young people I speak with today. The Arab spring, the Athens riots and all the other recent blow-outs are fuelled not as the politicians would have us believe solely by hooligans and anarchists, but people reacting negatively to constantly staring into the abyss of nothing or faced with getting the fast becoming obligatory masters degree, but at incredible expense with no guarantee that you will actually get a job at the end of it!
The Mayan prophecy proved to be nothing, but I will say this, unless youth employment issues are sorted out soon, growing frustration will only end up being channelled in less then productive and dangerous ways and not as Zeus, de Coubertin or Dr. Penny-Brookes had hoped for!