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Friday, February 15, 2002

Sports

A Greek Style Miracle on Ice?


The really big question hanging over the 2002 winter Olympics in Salt Lake City is whether anyone will notice the Greek bobsled team. Back in 1988, at the Calgary games, the Jamaican team was the toast of the town. The world is probably not yet ready for a country best known for its beaches competing in winter sports. Nonetheless, it does snow in Greece; thus, the novelty of the Greek team symbolizes Greece’s nonexistent relationship to the winter Olympics.

Despite its stated role as the bulwark of the Olympic spirit, Greece has made little effort to make its presence felt at the winter Olympics. By contrast, Greece has made a point of sending as large a group of athletes as possible to the summer games, as a statement of its respect for the spirit of the Olympics. It has also helped to develop several summer Olympic sports in order to underscore the seriousness with which Greece treats the games. Greek athletes labored in anonymity for years, barely reaching the qualifying rounds of most summer Olympic sports. Beginning with wrestling in the 1980s, however, and then weightlifting and track and field, Greek medal winners began to multiply.

The drought, however, has continued in the winter games. Greece’s Olympic sensibilities somehow fail to extend to winter sports, despite the growth of such sports in Greece over the past quarter-century. Any reversal of fortune will therefore be up to private initiative, such as the self-financed bobsled team created by two Chicago Greek Americans, John Andrew Kambanis and John Livaditis. They will be up against formidable opponents, as well as a heavy historical tradition.

The first winter Olympics took place at Chamonix, France, in 1924, but Greece was not among the 16 nations that participated. The first winter Olympics in which Greece was present, albeit with one athlete, were those in the German resort of Garmisch-Paterkirchen in 1936. Winter sports were emerging meekly in Greece and the first domestic winter games were held on Mount Parnitha in 1932. After the Second World War, athletes from 28 countries competed in the 1948 winter Olympics at St. Moritz, Switzerland. Among them was a sole Greek skier who came in 101st in his race.

When the ninth winter Olympics opened in the Austrian town of Innsbruck in 1964, Greece’s presence was only slightly more prominent than it had been in the past. Three Greek skiers participated in downhill skiing events, coming close to the rear of the final table. But the spirit of Ancient Greece shone brightly at least. For the first time since the Winter Games had begun, a flame was transported all the way from Olympia to the host city. This had been standard practice for the summer games since 1936, but Innsbruck was the first host of the winter games to receive the ceremonial flame from Greece.

The winter games kept on growing. On the 60th anniversary of their modest beginnings in Chamonix back in 1924, no one remembered the many doubts and controversies that had surrounded the concept of un-ancient-Greek-like winter sports becoming part of the Olympics. In 1980, millions of television viewers in the United States rejoiced as their hockey team upset – and shocked – the Soviet Union on its way to a gold medal at the Lake Placid Olympics, a legendary feat that quickly became known as “the miracle on ice.”

At the 1984 games in Sarajevo, 49 nations were represented, over three times the number that took part in the first games in 1924. Seventeen of those nations, including host Yugoslavia, won at least one medal. Several gold medalists became celebrities; none more so than East German figure-skater Katarina Witt, who is said to have received 35,000 love letters following her medal-winning performance, televised throughout the world.

A few months after the Sarajevo games, Greece would be sharply critical of the rampant commercialization of the 1984 summer games in Los Angeles. Nonetheless, Greece appeared unconcerned with its stagnant showing at successive winter Olympics, including Sarajevo. A record number of six Greeks participated in the latter, although they did not have a great distance to travel. One of them even succeeded in placing 25th in an Alpine skiing event, the highest finish ever for a Greek winter athlete in the Olympics. Nothing much has changed since then.

It all could change quickly, however, if the Greek bobsled team (the sport is officially know as bobsleigh) can make the same kind of impact that the Jamaicans made in Calgary in 1988. The Jamaicans showed the rest of the world that snowless nations could compete – although perhaps not win – in the winter Olympics. The team that trained at home by pushing a sled on wheels financed its way to Calgary by selling t-shirts and a tape of reggae music.

The Jamaican bob-sledders became enormously popular, and the ultimate accolade came when Disney made a movie based on their experiences. Cool Runnings was released in 1993. Its formulaic plot left American film critic Roger Ebert unimpressed, and he gave it only two and a half stars. But there was much more than just hype to all this: the Jamaicans got serious, and they now have a bobsleigh federation that competes regularly in the winter Olympics. They have gone from being an amusing oddity in Calgary to gaining a very respectable 14th place in Lillehammer, Norway, in 1994 to being serious contender in Salt Lake City this year.

Having a similar impact and energizing Greece’s commitment to the winter Games are the ultimate goals of the Greek bobsleigh team that is competing in Utah. If they achieve them, it will be third-time lucky for them. The first appearance of a Greek bobsleigh team was in Lillehammer in 1994, but it passed unnoticed. Four years later, the two-man and four-man teams came in 31st and 30th, respectively, among a field of about 40 competitors at the 1998 Nagano games in Japan.

Despite a lack of support from the Greek ice sports authorities this time around, team pilot Kambanis and team brakeman Livaditis are gearing up to make a breakthrough. Their coach is Patrick Brown, who coached the original Jamaican team in Calgary. They’ll need him because this sport is not for the fainthearted or unskilled. A two-man bobsleigh weighs up to 858 pounds. Competitors approach 90mph on a 4,380-foot ice-covered track that resembles a chute in a water-park slide. After pushing off, the Greek American duo will hurtle along, dropping 402 vertical feet through 15 curves.

The two Greek Americans will have many of their supporters with them in the race – at least in images. In order to raise funds, they have invited fans to send them their photographs, and they will commission an artist to create an artistic collage that will appear on the side of their sled, next to the Greek flag. One can send as many photographs of as many people, friends, and relatives that one likes, for $20 per photograph. The appeal is posted on their Website at http://www.olympicdream.net.

That the team is made up of two Chicago-based Greek Americans is somehow appropriate. Back in the early twentieth century, when Greece was weak in the summer games, it relied on Diaspora Greeks to supplement the numbers and strengthen the team. They included Greek Americans Panayotis Trivoulidas, winner of the Boston marathon in 1920, who took part in the Antwerp summer Olympics in 1920. And the first-ever Greek to participate in the winter Olympics, skier Dimitrios Negrepontis, was also a Diaspora Greek. More recently, weightlifters of Greek origin from Albania and the former Soviet Union have won medals for Greece.

Can the Greek American bobsleigh dream become a miracle? Will it make an impact, and might it even energize the Greek winter sports authorities into taking Greece’s role in the Olympics more seriously? According to information provided by the team, it finished 36th out of 47 nations that participated in the major bobsleigh races last season. Can it perhaps do just a little better and at least beat the Jamaicans? For answers to all these questions, we’ll have to wait until February 16th, when the bobsleigh events begin in Salt Lake City.

Alexander Kitroeff teaches history at Haverford College and is a contributing editor to greekworks.com, which published his most recent book, Wrestling With the Ancients: Modern Greek Identity and the Olympics.
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