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Friday, March 15, 2002

Sports

The Wide World of Sports, Greek-Style: Greek Sport and the Diaspora Connection


Athena Christoforakis of the Temple University Owls grabs a rebound and scores a crucial basket. The visiting University of Richmond Spiders are running out of time; they give the ball to Michele Koclanes, who goes through the Temple zone defense and scores with a layup. Within seconds, however, Christoforakis scores again. It’s Greek versus Greek in the closing minutes of a National Collegiate Athletic Association women’s basketball game on Super Bowl Sunday last month.

More accurately, it’s Greek American versus Greek American, but Temple’s Florida-born Christoforakis is considering trying out for the Greek national women’s basketball team after graduating with a degree in sports management from Temple University this summer. There is a long tradition, dating back to the early twentieth century, of diaspora Greeks competing for Greece in international competition.

Yet the practice of drafting diaspora Greeks is as inconsistent as it is old. The motive has always been expediency rather than any systematic embrace of persons of Greek origin living abroad. Greece’s prominence (because of its ancient heritage) in the international Olympic movement has always been welcome in Athens, but it has also come with a heightened sensitivity about the country’s performance on the sports field.

On several occasions before the Second World War, Greece called upon diaspora athletes in order to make a respectable appearance, let alone gain some distinction, at the Olympics or other international competitions. At the Los Angeles Olympics of 1932, four of the 10 athletes on the Greek team were diaspora Greeks. After the war, Greek sports gradually began making an impact. A bronze medal won by pole-vaulter Giorgos Roubanis at the 1956 Olympics at Melbourne was the first medal won by Greece after the 1912 Olympics in London.

Increased prominence in international sporting arenas did not diminish the need for diaspora Greeks, but it did mean that they were only valuable if they were stars. For a long time after Cyprus’s independence, Greek Cypriots continued to compete in international track and field as part of the Greek team – up to and including the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. It was Cypriot sprinter Stavros Tziortzis who made it to the 400-meter hurdles final for Greece, at the time a big moment for Greek sports.

The inclusion of Greek Cypriots and the exclusion of Greeks of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact countries indicate the arbitrariness with which Greekness has always been defined. While the Cypriots were nominally citizens of another independent state, the not-accidental absence of an Olympic Committee on the island enabled Greek Cypriots to participate under Greece’s colors. There was no similar largesse, however, in defining Greekness in the case of the offspring of the communists and left-wingers who sought refuge in Eastern Europe at the end of the Greek Civil War. They were the “enemy” because of their parents’ political beliefs. In the event, the regimes of the self-proclaimed “socialist world” also helped to limit diaspora Greek participation in international competition by preventing them – as with all the athletes of those countries – from moving abroad.

A brief spell in power by the less rabidly anticommunist Center Union Party permitted soccer player Nikos Yioutsos to move from Hungary to Olympiakos Piraeus in 1964. Yioutsos, a penetrating attacker who was cheered on with shouts of “Embaine Yioutso!” – “Go, Yioutso,” in a free translation – also played 15 times for the Greek national team. Another import from behind the so-called Iron Curtain, Vasilis Chatzipanayis, learned his prodigious soccer skills in the Soviet Union. Especially adept at ball-handling, which Greek fans value higher than the passing or running game, Chatzipanayis, who played for Iraklis Thessaloniki, became a legend, earning the nickname “Nureyev.”

When the Berlin Wall tumbled and the Eastern European countries opened up, the Greeks suddenly discovered many long-lost diaspora communities. Until that time, political expediency had prevented Greece from acknowledging as its offspring any of the Greeks of Albania, the Caucasus region, or other parts of Eastern Europe. Openly acknowledging ties with the Greek minority of Albania, for example, could have encouraged territorial claims on the region by extremist Greek northern Epirotes, thus damaging Greece’s diplomatic standing.

In comparable fashion, a wish to preserve good relations with the Soviet Union and give the appearance of independence in foreign policy at a time when NATO’s unpopularity was growing, meant that Athens also ignored the Greeks of the Black Sea region. Some of those communities went back to settlements encouraged by Catherine the Great in the late 1770s, although most of the Caucasus Greeks were part of the almost half-million Pontians forced to emigrate from Turkey during the First World War and the subsequent Asia Minor Disaster.

After 1989, everything changed, however: Greece flamboyantly embraced all its long-lost children, and there was a deluge of newspaper articles, radio broadcasts, television documentaries, and coffee-table books, not to mention excursions and academic conferences, devoted to the “rediscovery” of the no-longer-lost Greek diaspora. Enthusiasm over these newfound brethren dimmed considerably as many of them arrived in Greece essentially as impoverished refugees, bringing with them many other undocumented inhabitants of Albania and the Caucasus whose ethnic origins were unclear.

There was one category of arrivals, however, that was welcome: top athletes who were in a position to earn distinctions for Greece in international competition. No one was made more welcome than weightlifter Pyrros Dimas, born in the town of Chimarra in southern Albania (and named after the king of that region in ancient times, Pyrrhus of Illyria). Dimas’s victories were much more meaningful than those of his namesake: he won three consecutive gold medals in the 1992, 1996, and 2000 Olympic Games, and he is considered one of the greatest weightlifters of all time. Equally important – at least in Greek eyes – is Dimas’s fierce Greek patriotism, which has served to legitimize his move to Greece.

The “repatriation” of other top athletes is not as straightforward. Some were less obviously of Greek origin but were granted Greek nationality nonetheless. Kakhi Kakhiachveili, for instance, won the gold medal in the middle-heavyweight category in weightlifting with the post-Soviet “Unified team” in the Barcelona games of 1992. In 1996 and 2000, however, he won his medals for the Greek team – with a different name or, rather, names! He became Akakide Kakhaiashvilis in 1996 and – even more Greek-sounding – Akakios Kakiasvilis in 2000. Hellenizing the name after granting him Greek nationality made things more palatable, but no one really complained in any case, since – what’s in a name? – Kakhiachveili/Kakhaiashvilis/Kakiasvilis brought the gold to Greece.

Nonetheless, there are pitfalls to “importing” bona fide or non-bona fide Greek-origin athletes in sports in which Greece has a fairly good program. Most obviously, it promotes a cult of win-at-all-costs, a champions-oriented sport mentality that goes against the spirit of the Olympics that Greece is supposed to preserve. It is also less conducive to promoting a particular sport and developing younger athletes. Already, there are fears that most of the top Greek weightlifters at the Athens games in 2004 will be relatively old, and that there are no new young prospects.

Women’s sports, however, are a different case. With the exception of track and field, they are all woefully underdeveloped, especially team sports such as soccer and basketball. The case of the latter two is particularly egregious, as they are the two most popular spectator sports in Greece. For the reasons of this backwardness, one needs to look no further than the exclusively male sports leadership of the country. Moreover, Greek authorities generally drag their feet when there are no obvious prospects of quick success. Women’s sports have a golden opportunity in Greece, however, because all teams of the host country will automatically gain a spot in the elimination tournaments of the Athens Olympics in 2004.

Now, of course, Greek authorities have to consider national pride and actually do something. Given this situation, the infusion of a few diaspora Greek women into these programs will benefit everyone involved. The authorities do not know who is out there, naturally – after all, Greece turns to the diaspora only in its hour(s) of need – but there is movement in both soccer and, more recently, in basketball.

The women’s soccer team, also in its early stages of development, has already invited Greek Americans who play college soccer in the US to Greece for try-outs. Among them is Brooklyn-born Maria Yatrakis, a goalkeeper for the Huskies of the University of Connecticut. Yatrakis, along with several other Greek Americans – including Natalie Klissas of Towson University in Maryland and Katherine Kakoyianni, an assistant coach at Northern Iowa – may be part of the Greek team in the 2004 Olympics.

The same could happen with the women’s basketball team, which could do with the versatile six-foot Christoforakis, who excels in both defense and offense. The Greek American forward was instrumental in helping Temple University win the championship of the Atlantic 10 conference for the first time in 20 years. Christoforakis eliminated the opponents’ star player on the way to notching impressive rebounding and scoring statistics in the final against cross-city rival, St. Joseph’s University.

One of the most seasoned sportswriters covering women’s college basketball on the East Coast, Mel Greenberg of the Philadelphia Inquirer, rates Christoforakis highly. Christoforakis may have a future playing professionally in the United States. Meanwhile, Georgos Tsitkaris, the coach of the Greek women’s team, has been alerted to Christoforakis’s abilities and will soon be watching videotapes of her recent games.

If Christoforakis, other Greek American basketball players such as Richmond’s Koclanes, and soccer players such Maria Yatrakis, are invited to play for Greece, another chapter will open in the diaspora’s long association with Greek sports. Somehow, however, in this case, the fact that they will be helping develop their respective sports rather than just winning medals makes their contributions all the more worthwhile.

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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