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Monday, April 15, 2002


Greek Sports: Hasta la Victoria Siempre!

Amilcar smiles with recognition upon hearing the name of Greek javelin thrower Mirela Manjani-Tzelili. As a Cuban sports fan, he knows that Tzelili lies in the way of his compatriot Osleidys Menendez’s quest for Olympic gold in Athens in 2004. The contest for the gold medal in the women’s javelin throw in the next Olympics is not the only thing that brings the Cuban and Greek sports worlds together.

Greek sport is in the process of a major shift away from a culture of simply feeling good for taking part in competition. Currently, winning rather than merely participating predominates in the minds of Greek athletes and fans. Recent international successes achieved by athletes such as Tzelili has fueled this trend. Competitors such as Menendez are keeping Greek athletes on their toes.

Tzelili won the women’s javelin throw in the World Athletic Championships in Seville in 1999, but two years later, at the championships in Edmonton, she came in second to Menendez. The Cuban also won in Rethymno, Crete, breaking the world record with a throw of 71.54 meters. In between those two tournaments, Tzelili won a silver medal, and Menendez a bronze one, at the Sydney Olympics.

While the javelin throw may not be the most glamorous of women’s sports, the first Olympic competition, held in Los Angeles in 1932, was won by the legendary and controversial American, Mildred “Babe”Didriksen Zaharias. As for Amilcar, who is meeting a group of US students at the Abrante Stadium of the University of Havana, where Menendez has trained, he thinks the 2004 contest will be close and exciting.

The Cubans know all about the will to win. Their relationship to sports is directly related to the quest for victory. “Listos Para Vencer” (Ready to Win) reads a large sign outside the Ciudad Deportiva, the sports complex situated on the road leading from the airport to Havana. In the city itself, there are three large signs above the bleachers in the 55,000-seat Estadio Latinoamericano. One carries a quote by Fidel Castro, stating that Cuba has developed a healthy sports culture, the second describes Cuban sports as the work of the people, while the third praises Cuba as a “pais de campeones,” a country of champions.

Such brazen celebration of the commitment to win would have been looked down upon in Greece – at least until recently. Greek sporting culture has traditionally fed off the Olympic dictum that what is important is to take part, not to win. Originally conceived by a French priest, the sentiment became gospel in the 1920s, under Baron de Coubertin, the founder of the modern games. At the time, the baron was fighting against a growing emphasis on competition and record-breaking that he believed threatened the true spirit of the Olympics.

Coubertin was not alone; he was supported by the sporting establishment in Britain, a country in which the gentleman-athlete tradition remained alive. In the London Olympics in 1912, British sports fans were horrified to discover that their American cousins were participating in the Games with a win-at-all-costs attitude. There was a great deal of Anglo-American friction on and off the field at the time.

The Greeks were also adherents of the view that what was important was to take part, not to win. One could say that they were making a virtue of necessity. Greek sporting victories on an international level were nonexistent for several decades in the twentieth century – although the situation improved slightly in the 1950s and especially in 1960, when then-Crown Prince Constantine won a gold medal in sailing at the Rome Olympics. It was soccer, the people’s game, however, rather than the elitist sport of sailing that witnessed a gradually increasing Greek presence in international competition, especially at the annual European tournaments.

Yet the successes were modest for the most part, consisting of hard-fought losses or, at the most respectable, ties that were then followed by defeats in the next round or even the next game. One of the earliest such occasions was in 1965, when Panathinaikos made a rare appearance in the second round of the European Cup competition. The Greek champions went to Budapest and held on to a “heroic” 0-0 tie against the favored Hungarian champions, Ferencvaros. Alas, that was followed by an ignominious 3-1 debacle back in Athens.

Nonetheless, the Greeks were doing more than participating, they were winning a few, and also showing some fighting spirit and ability before being eliminated in the early stages of international competition. Bad luck, bad weather, or bad refereeing were the causes most often invoked by sportswriters to explain ultimate defeat. Soon, there was a pattern of doing well but not well enough, and this demanded a more comprehensive explanation. We can describe this change as a shift away from the old Olympic dictum about participation being the most important virtue to a sports culture that saw victory in defeat.

Chile is a country that shared such a sports culture with Greece. Greek-Chilean contacts are more usually acknowledged in the world of politics and art. Chile’s military seized power in September 1973, less than a year before the Greek junta collapsed. Many Greeks saw parallels in the development of the two countries based on the support the United States had offered both dictatorships. Roberto Castillo Sandoval, a US-based Chilean author, depicts this sports culture of glorifying victory in defeat in his 1998 novel, Muriendo por la dulce patria mía. The hero is Chilean boxer Arturo Godoy, who fought Joe Lewis twice for the heavyweight title of the world in 1940. Outmatched, Godoy lost both times, but he became a hero to all Chileans. Castillo’s fictional and subversive recreation of the way Godoy became a hero points to how defeat can be turned into moral triumph.

It may be that relatively small countries cannot hope for international firsts so they have to settle for second best. Defeat in a final, be it in boxing or any other sport, thus turns into a moral victory, more noble and heroic than the one achieved by the powerful favorite. Greece’s answer to Godoy came in 1971, when Panathinaikos, against all odds, reached the final of the European Cup competition, played at London’s Wembley Stadium. In the opposite corner was none less than the formidable Ajax Amsterdam. The Dutch champions were led by the legendary Johan Cruyff, who, on that day, danced like a butterfly and stung Panathinaikos like a bee. Outmatched, Panathinaikos lost.

The Greeks returned home to a hero’s welcome and to accolades that still continue today. On the day after, the banner headline of the Athens daily, Athlitiki Icho, blared, “The Giant Panathinaikos Dominated at Wembley.” The real story came below, in much smaller print: “Was Condemned by (Bad) Luck and Lost to Ajax 2-0.” Over 30 years later, with no other team having progressed to a European final, Panathinaikos’s loss is celebrated as the greatest achievement of Greek soccer. Godoy, for one, would have understood completely.

The Cubans, however, would have had a harder time understanding. Despite their similar population size with Greece, they were busy celebrating real victories in the form of gold medals at the Olympics. At the Munich games in 1972, Cuba won three gold medals in boxing alone. One of them hung around the neck of heavyweight Teofilo Stevenson, who would win gold again at the next two Olympics in Montreal in 1976 and Moscow in 1980.

But things are changing in Greece. Four gold medals and four silver medals at the 1996 Games in Atlanta meant that Greece had crossed the threshold of real winners. A massive victory parade in Athens upon the return of its victorious athletes announced that Greece was no longer celebrating near misses disguised as moral victories. The Cubans – who, incidentally, won 25 medals in Atlanta, nine of them gold – would have related better to that particular occasion.

The change of attitude wrought by Atlanta was much in evidence during Panathinaikos’s successful European campaign in the 2001-02 season. Last October, the Greek team was closing down an easy victory in the domestic championship, their foot off the throttle in preparation for a mid-week game in London to play Arsenal. Panathinaikos had won the first game against the Londoners in Athens, and now needed only a tie. As its domestic game drew to a close, a rhythmic roar from the home crowd demanded, “Niki sto Londino” (Victory in London)!

Satisfaction with heroic defeats abroad is obviously a thing of the past. In the event, Panathinaikos went through the preliminary rounds and reached the final eight of the championship tournament before narrowly succumbing to European powerhouse Barcelona. As the game ended, Greek commentators did not waste time depicting the loss as a moral victory. On the contrary, they produced a chorus of regrets amid claims that the Greek team deserved to win and should not have been satisfied with making it to the elite eight before losing – another thing the Cubans would have understood.

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