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I (will) still call Athens home: The Olympics and communal pride

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August 30, 2004 by Christina Lee

I have just received a postcard from my friend Ian. He is in Athens working for the Press Operations division at this year's summer Olympic Games. On the card, there is a photograph of the theatre of Dionysos. The preserved ruins are remarkable. They are testament of Greek architectural innovation and antiquity. It is a marvel of human creation. As impressive as it is however, I find myself more intrigued by the two Games' mascots — Athenà and Phèvos — who are superimposed over the picture. They look like crude 'blob people' that an eight year old would have dreamt up.

Go you good thing! Australia's Lauren Burns wins gold at Taekwondo (State Sports Centre)
Go you good thing! Australia's Lauren Burns wins gold at Taekwondo (State Sports Centre)

On the reverse of the postcard, one of the chicken-scratched inscriptions reads: "Note * Front image shows Ian and Christina. Christina is about to have a piggy back ride in true Olympic News Service (ONS) fashion. Also note Ian has a camera!" It is the most poignant statement on the postcard. I get all shamelessly sentimental — the way I always do when I watch Christine Anu sing "Island Home" at Sydney's closing ceremony.

Then it dawns on me that what I am experiencing is not devotion to the nation-state — the homeland — but a deep affiliation to the more nebulous concept of 'imagined community'.

Staff at VPC (Venue Press Centre)
Staff at VPC (Venue Press Centre)

I have always thought "The impact of the Olympic Games upon nationalist fervour and the construction of identity" would make for a wonderful Honours or PhD topic. I confess — I wore my Australian-ness proudly on my sleeve during the Sydney Games. To be particular, it was a temporary decal of the national flag stuck on my arm. If anyone asked if I was one of the Chinese media contingency, I would be swift to correct them of my nationality and inform them that this was my Games.

When the big, little-man proclaimed to the world that it was "the best Games ever", it was the highest form of recognition that Sydney had done the country proud. I — along with everyone else — patted myself on the back. Job well done, mate. It was a great time to be a citizen of the Land Down Under.

I clearly remember thinking and feeling that at the time. In hindsight, 'national pride' anchored and articulated the less well-defined interactions I had with those around me. It functioned as a filler for something I did not have the words to describe. I worked as a flash quote reporter for the Olympic News Service in a team stationed at the State Sports Centre. Our hours and tasks were gruelling, adrenaline-inducing and ultimately exhaustive. It was not uncommon to pull double-shifts — starting at 9am and finishing 11pm that day. We saw our group members more than we did daylight. Toiling together, eating together, laughing together and crying together — we had become a family … whether we liked it or not.

The nature of our occupation was highly insular. Effective communication and team bonding was a vital element in order to meet strict deadlines and coordinate the reporting and writing of stories. After interviewing an athlete or coach after a match or bout, I would have to ring through the information to the Main Press Centre (MPC). Protocol dictated that we used only our initials as identification. On many occasions, I would speak to 'MP' — whose full name I never found out, and whose face I never saw. Strangely enough I developed a quirky rapport with this nameless, faceless person.

Celebrating TKD gold with Michalis Mouroutsos (Greece)
Celebrating TKD gold with Michalis Mouroutsos (Greece)

The two-week intensity of the Olympic Games meant that such relations had to be rapidly forged, or were lost altogether. The sense of camaraderie was based on our efforts to ensure the smoothest running of the press sector as possible. We did not take pride in our work as Australians, but as a community comprised predominantly of media persons — regardless of national association.

Maybe my affection for the mascots is not as bogus as I had initially thought. Athenà and Phèvos were sister and brother after all. They were family — very much like how I felt towards my comrades. There really is no place like home — but home is also where the heart is. There can never be an Olympics like the one I experienced in Sydney. That I accept. It was not the unique metropolis with its majestic harbour that I recall with the greatest fondness. Nor was it cheering when Australia won gold at the Taekwondo or at the Athletics. To be blunt, I was not overcome by love for my fellow country men and women. Instead, I was most affected by the personal relationships that were formed between fellow co-workers and myself — whether they were from Australia, China, Belgium or Switzerland.

The ONS crew
The ONS crew

Greece will never be the Sydney Games. I regard that as a positive statement. Place is irrelevant. The country is besides the (main) point, as is national identification with it. It is a whole lot less hokey and embarrassing to say "I'm doing it for Australia" than "This is team spirit!" The former always seems more legitimate. Luckily, these days I am more willing to accept that the hokey and the embarrassing are valid reasons, rather than silly excuses, for feeling the way I do, and did in the past.

I do not deny them now. I claim them as my own. Being piggy-backed around a pub by my Press Information Specialist, and improvising a Zorba dance at the hockey stadium with my team mates are 'right up there' on my list of "Why I loved the Games with a vengeance".

If I were to write that dissertation today, my thesis statement would be a heck of a lot different from where I started out.

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