The 2004 Olympic games in Athens, Greece, have been attracting a growing worldwide audience since they began August 13. Particularly attentive have been Greek-Americans. As Penelope Poulou discovered, many say the Games have inspired a renewed sense of pride about their country of origin.
At Zorba's Restaurant in Baltimore's Greek Town district, all eyes were glued to the huge TV screen the other day as Greek gymnast Dimosthenis Tabakos received his gold medal at the Athens Olympics for his performance on the rings. As the Greek flag was raised and the Greek national anthem played through the TV speakers, the crowd watching the ceremony at Zorba's couldn't contain its joy.
Everyone at "Zorbas" this day is a first-generation Greek immigrant. And although most of them came to America in the 1960s and 70s, few speak fluent English. When I begin to ask them questions, they direct me to a middle-aged man sitting at the bar named Aris Moraitis. Mr. Moraitis, a Greek who came to the United States in 1975, says watching the Games on TV, rather than being in Athens, has made him very homesick. "It's been terrible, not being there," says Aris Moraitis. "Cause I'm personally from Athens. And you know, it's like just looking at your house on T.V. There is no other way to explain it. How do you feel when you look at your home - that's the way we feel." The Baltimore neighborhood around Zorba's evokes a Greek village of 50 years ago. Taverns and cafes in Greek Town are almost exclusively male territory. Many of the storefronts and houses appear neglected. This is not an area that usually attracts visitors. The past two weeks have been an exception.
"We got a lot of attention because of the Games. And reporters from the newspaper and TV stations are all thinking of Greek town when they think of the Olympics," says Lisa Stachura, Executive Director of the Greek Town Community Development Corporation in the city of Baltimore.
She sees the Olympics in Athens not just as a stirring spectacle, but also as a great marketing opportunity for this small Greek-American neighborhood.
"They've come here and they've realized what a great place it is," she adds. "And they're frequenting the restaurants and they are writing reviews of the restaurants and in turn the residents here are putting on their Greek flags and are showing their pride."
That surge in ethnic pride stirred by the Athens Olympic games is a phenomenon playing out in Greek-American communities all across the United States, according to Basil Mossaidis, the Executive director of AHEPA, the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association.
"It's a mixture of emotions, I'll tell you," he says. "Growing up being very Greek in America, It's a thrill to be able to watch the Olympics return to their birthplace. Rightfully so."
Basil Mossaidis says he also feels a sense of vindication. Long before the Olympic opening ceremony the international media had questioned whether Greece would be able to rise to the challenge and complete the sports facilities in time for the games. "Having visited Greece many times during the construction phase and meeting with certain government officials on various levels, everything was getting done right on time. I think the media, or whoever was behind this confusion on whether it was going to be done on time was very inaccurate in their reporting," he adds. "I felt that it was unjustly done to the Greek people and to the country of Greece and to the Olympic committee that was doing all these works. They've done a wonderful job." Another Greek-American, Kostas Grimaldis, says Greece procrastinated in its preparations for the Games, but he finds nothing wrong with that.
"That's the way that we work," he says. "We are the 'last-minute people,' but we do it."
But the media focus on the Games has occasionally been painful for Greek-Americans. Two of the most popular Greek Olympian athletes were involved in a doping scandal, and in the first week of the Games, most of the Olympic venues were reported to be virtually empty. Greek-Americans are stoic about such reports. Basil Mossaidis says coverage of the negative aspects of the Olympics has obscured some of the very positive things about the Athens Games.
"The fact of the matter is plain. Greece has sold more tickets than Seoul has sold in the 88 Olympics, it sold more than in Barcelona, they've sold more tickets than in a number of different places," he notes. "So, to say that it's not heavily attended, well maybe some people don't want to go and see Badminton. Did you see the basketball game? There wasn't a seat available anywhere." Whether the Olympic venues are empty or not, many Greek-Americans gather in front of the TV sets in restaurants, taverns and at home hoping at least for a glimpse of Athens. Todd Bonicker says that for his Greek-American wife, the Olympics coverage has been a delightful taste of home.
"She wants to go back more than ever," says Mr. Bonicker. "She's talked about it more. She's been calling Athens more. She is been on the internet a lot more. looking up to see pictures of Athens because everybody is saying how it looks so different - she is a lot more nostalgic now than she is even at Easter. She feels her Greekness then but now she feels more attached to Greece." And she is not the only one, of course. Many Greek-Americans with a longing for their home country are taking great comfort and pride from the Games this summer, and relishing this special chance to celebrate their Greekness.