ATHENS 2004: The Legacies of Unique Games on a Human Scale | Sunday Observer
MEMORIES OF OLYMPICS:

ATHENS 2004: The Legacies of Unique Games on a Human Scale

The Sri Lanka Team at the Parade of Nations at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games.
The Sri Lanka Team at the Parade of Nations at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games.

‘Welcome Home’ was the Motto of Athens 2004 Olympic Games. The world’s foremost international multi-sport extravaganza had returned home, in the summer of 2004, after 108 years of the establishment of the modern Olympic Games.

Ever since 1896, every four years, humanity celebrates, embraces and honours sport, and the world realizes the Olympic ideals. Officially known as the Games of the XXVIII Olympiad, a record 201 nations participated at the Athens 2004 edition for 17 days from August 13 to 29. The hosts Greece offered the world a joyous display of history, love and hope in a spectacular opening ceremony welcoming the athletes and celebrating the greatest aspects of humanity.

In the Olympic Games, what matters most is to share the common vision of promoting peace and friendship among all the people of the world, through the noble competition in sport. When Athens, the city of their revival in 1896, hosted athletes from around the globe and united them at the Olympic Stadium in Athens, Greece in 2004, it was a moment to relish. The Athens 2004 edition offered the world a unique and festive experience, truly combining history, culture and peace with sports and Olympism. The Athens 2004 Olympics had 28 sports, 37 disciplines and 301 events. The official mascots for the games were Athena and Phevos.

The gracious presence of the then Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa and Madam Shiranthi Rajapaksa among the dignitaries at the opening ceremony received recognition in the live coverage to four billion viewers of the world when the Sri Lanka team marched in the Parade of Nations. The most enduring memories of Athens 2004 for me was the runner who lapped carrying a flag with an image of an olive branch symbolizing peace at the opening ceremony and the young girl who lit a symbolic lantern with the flame and passed it on to other children before extinguishing the Olympic Flame in the cauldron by blowing a puff of air at the closing ceremony. It’s the experience you have to live once in life!

The Olympic Games are the arena where human abilities are demonstrated and acknowledged; an inspiration that encourages and empowers each of us to pursue our ideals, high as they might be. Noble competition inspire the athletes to excel in each of their endeavours. The Olympic symbols of ancient Olympia, the Olympic flame and the Marathon race are the bridges between the ancient and the modern Olympic Games. The athletes, spectators, organizers and volunteers who shared the Games through new technologies participated in an atmosphere that enhanced Olympism.

Cradle of Olympism

The first Olympic Games in antiquity, in 776 BC, mark a particular point in the history of world sports and civilization. In 1894, Baron Pierre de Coubertin and the Congress in Paris took a giant step towards reviving the Olympic Games in modern times. The choice of Athens as the first Olympic City, as well as the enthusiasm with which the Greeks greeted the Games in 1896, contributed decisively to the effort of establishing a Modern Olympic Movement.

The official appearance of the modern lighting of the Olympic Flame and the Torch Relay would take place for the first time at the Berlin 1936 edition. The values and symbolism expressed by the Olympic Flame have the power of universal human experience, a world symbol for peace, a symbol for civilization and a point of connection for the youth of the world. The ritual of lighting the Olympic Flame and the Torch Relay highlights the timelessness of the Olympic Games.

Team Sri Lanka

The Team Sri Lanka for Athens 2004 comprised of five most talented athletes who fulfilled Athens 2004 Entry Qualifications – the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games silver medalist, Susanthika Jayasinghe as the Team Captain, Damayanthi Darsha (400m), Rohan Pradeep Fernando (400m), Anuradha Indrajith Cooray (Marathon) and Manjula Wijesekera (High Jump) with officials, Commodore Shemal Fernando (Team Manager), Sunil Gunawardene and late Lakshman de Alwis (coaches); two swimmers - Conrad Francis and Menaka de Silva with official EGA Wilson; one shooter - Pushpamali Ramanayake with official Colonel Pasan Kularatne.

The Chef De Mission was Joseph Kenny and other officials included, Mrs. LP Kodikara, Srimal Wickramasinghe and Dr. Shiromi Pilapitiya.

All four Track and Field athletes who took part qualified for the Olympic Games under ‘B’ category so they were not among the medal prospects at Athens 2004. Among the four athletes, Manjula Wijesekera was the most outstanding, securing 20th position in the High Jump clearing 2.20 at the age of 20 and becoming the best among Asian athletes. Anuradha Indrajith Cooray was 27 and he came 30th in the Marathon. Rohan Pradeep Fernando and Damayanthi Darsha, both aged 29, could manage only 34th and 38th positions respectively in the 400m. Both coaches did a splendid job to give the athletes the best possible exposure.

Opening Ceremony

On August 13, 2004, the biggest celebration of the world unfolded with the Opening Ceremony. For the first time, the Games returned to the country where they were born and the city where they were revived. The 72,000 spectators inside the stadium watched a live pre-show, connecting symbolically the Ancient Olympia Stadium with the Athens Olympic Stadium, bridging 3000 years of Olympic Games history. Some 400 percussionists played to the rhythm of the Greek dance “zeimbeiko” and then to the heartbeat, as the Olympic circles appeared flaming through the water that converted the Olympic Stadium’s field of play.

Gianna Angelopoulos, the first female chief organizer of an Olympic Games said: “Welcome home, Greece is standing before you. We are ready”. She also stated that the people of Greece “have waited long for this moment,” alluding to the long period between the first modern Olympic Games in 1896 and the 2004 Games.

The IOC president Jacques Rogge in his speech urged athletes to refuse doping and respect fair play, stressing that the world needed “peace, tolerance and brotherhood”. He continued by saying that the athletes from 201 nations show that sport unites, by overriding national, political, religious and language barriers and wished that the Games be held in peace in the true spirit of the Olympic Truce.

Then, the Games were declared open. The Greek flag was raised. At the perimeter of the field of play the history of Greek civilization was depicted, through works of art. The Parade of Nations followed as per the Greek alphabet and to the music provided by DJ Tiesto, becoming the first DJ ever to spin live at the Olympics. The Olympic Oath was taken. Bjork, the singer and performer from Iceland, then sang “Oceania”, a song she composed especially for the Opening Ceremony. Last torch bearer Nikolaos Kaklamanakis reached the Cauldron, the Torch pivoted downwards, bringing symbolically together earth and sky and the Torch slowly lifted the Flame. At this magical night, Athens welcomed the best athletes from around the globe for the Games.

Ancient Olympic Stadium

The Shot Putt events for men and women were held in the Stadium of Ancient Olympia on August 18, 2004. For the preservation of the site, there was no visual intervention to the competition ground, no temporary structures and grandstands, no electronic boards or artificial lighting. At the Stadium only movable throwing circles were placed. The facilities of the International Olympic Academy in Olympia were used to host athletes and Media representatives, where a modern stadium was used as training and warm-up facility.

Marathon

The Marathon was run on its historic course starting outside the Marathon and finishing in the Panathinaiko Stadium. It is widely known as Kallimarmaro and is the stadium where the first modern Olympic Games in 1896 were held. Even in ancient years, the area where the Panathinaiko Stadium stands today was used to host the Panathenean Games festival events that were held to honour the Greek goddess Athena. Situated in the heart of the Greek capital, it was first reconstructed in 1895 for the purpose of becoming the main stadium to host the 1896 Olympic Games.

Stimulations from Athens

One of the greatest female Olympic athletes Merlyn Ottey at the age of 44 clocked 11.24 in the 100m. The great all-time 200m men’s athlete Franke Fredricks ran a blistering farewell Olympic Games to be placed fourth with a time of 20.04. They proved to the world that age was not a barrier. Of the 25 Olympics up to Athens, the 400m was won by the US on 17 occasions. At Athens 20-year Jeremy Wariner at 44.0 flat won and reacting to the comment the “Fastest White Man,” the humble champion said: “It doesn’t matter whether you are black or white. What matters is to reach your top potential. I never wanted to win. But sure wanted to better my personal best timing.”

The US star studded 4x100m Relay team comprised three 100m finalists, including the 100m and 200m gold medalist and the victory was imminent. Yet, the unknown British team emerged victorious through brilliant teamwork in baton changes. Four times world champion and top favourite in the 110m Hurdles, Allen Johnson of the US was beaming with confidence to regain his title. He clipped two hurdles and crashed into the third. The lesser-known Liu Xiang with his consistency and perseverance won with a world record–equalling time of 12.91 to become the first Chinese athlete to win an Olympic athletics title, defying traditional beliefs about the physical caliber of Asian sprint athletes.

In a bizarre incident, during the marathon, race leader, Vanderlei de Lima of Brazil was pushed into spectators lining the road by a man who rushed from the crowd. When the drama took place he was approaching a point five miles from the end and appeared shocked but got back to his feet and resumed the race. He was soon caught up by the eventual gold and silver medalists although the brave Brazilian hung on to take the bronze. After the race, De Lima said: “I’m glad with the bronze but I was giving everything I had for the gold medal when he attacked. It threw me out of my rhythm. I lost the gold medal in that moment.” His courage earned him two medals.

During the Victory Ceremony of the Marathon held as part of the Closing Ceremony, the IOC releasing an announcement awarded the Pierre de Coubertin medal or the True Spirit of Sportsmanship medal to Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima of Brazil in recognition of his exceptional demonstration of ‘fair play’ and ‘Olympic values’ during the marathon. The special honour medal inaugurated in 1964, is one of the noblest honours that can be bestowed upon an Olympic athlete.

Olympic Village

The Accreditation gives you access to the Olympic Village, your home for the entire duration of the Games. Besides, it authorizes you to Athlete Stands, Athlete Preparation Areas, Special Transport and Dining. The atmosphere OLV creates to relax and enjoy is unique. The friendships that blossom in the OLV among the officials, coaches and athletes lasts forever. The Athens 2004 Olympic Games saw participation of 6,296 male athletes and 4,329 female athletes, a total of 10,625 athletes accompanied by 5,501 officials.

Having met and associated with 16-year old Usain Bolt in 2003, during the World Youth Games in Sherbrooke, Canada where he won the 200m with a record, we knew each other and met once more at the OLV in Athens. It was the debut Olympic Games of Bolt, before he became a superstar and he could only manage fifth in his 200m heat. He was happy to celebrate his 18th birthday at the OLV and I wished him.

Every time we crossed, he smiled and admired my Accreditation photo in naval uniform. I never dreamed that I was interacting with a legend in the making. As the reigning world and Olympic champion and the greatest athlete in world history, Usain St. Leo Bolt, OJ, CD, didn’t hesitate to pose and salute me when we met during the London 2012 Olympic Games!

Unforgettable Games

IOC president, Dr. Jacques Rogge told thousands of athletes and spectators: “These were the Games where it became increasingly difficult to cheat and where clean athletes were better protected. These were the Games where you, the athletes, have touched our hearts by your performances, your joys and your tears. These were unforgettable, dream Games.”

Rogge also praised the Greek organizers: “You have won. You have won by brilliantly meeting the tough challenge of holding the Games.” He ended in the traditional way: “I declare the Games of the XXVIII Olympiad closed and I call upon the youth of the world to assemble four years from now in Beijing to celebrate with us there, the Games of the XXIX Olympiad.”

In the True Spirit

Athens 2004 president, Gianna Angelopoulos delivered a remarkable speech that summed up the entire proceedings: “The Olympics came home, and we’ve shown the world the great things Greeks can do! After a journey lasting more than seven years, I want to thank the Olympic Family and my family, Presidents of IOC, Prime Ministers of Greece, the people of Athens 2004, our wonderful volunteers and the millions of Greeks who made this homecoming dream a magical reality.”

“What a remarkable 17 days! When the world saw our spectacular sport venues… our excellent and flawless operations… all these modern accomplishments on this most historic stage… the world discovered a New Greece. These Games broke records! Most athletes in history. Most women in history. Most National teams in history. First Global Torch Relay. First women to compete in Olympia. Safe and secure Games, blessed by a climate of celebration and joy.

“Athens was great for the Athletes; Greece was great for the Games! I asked our foreign guests: Did you enjoy yourselves in Greece? We loved having you here. You waved your National Flags. You stood for every Anthem. You danced to our music. We even heard you speak your first words of Greek. To you, we say, thank you! Let us all thank the athletes – you came here as competitors, you performed here as Olympians and you leave here as our friends. When you soared in every contest, with passion and precision, you made our hearts pound with joy.

“When you cried on the Medal Stand, we cried with you! Because of you, the Olympic Games are the most powerful source of inspiration and hope to humanity. Athletes of the world – thank you.

There is one more gold medal to award tonight! This gold medal belongs to all Greeks. Together we told a beautiful story that reconnected the Olympic Movement with its history and introduced a new Greece to the world. Tonight, as the lights go out in the stadium, let’s keep the Flame or creation, effort and victor burning in our hearts and souls. Look at this stadium, look around you and savour the movement”.

Closing Ceremony

The Closing Ceremony took place on August 29, 2004. The initial part of the ceremony interspersed with the performances of various Greek singers and featured traditional Greek dance performances from various regions of Greece. The Mayor of Athens handed over the Olympic Flag to the IOC president and him in turn to the Mayor of Beijing, the next host city. A staging from the Beijing delegation presented a glimpse into Chinese culture for the world to see.

The United States were once again the most successful nation, winning the most gold medals – 36, the most silver medals – 40 and the most medals overall–101.

China underlined its relentless improvement on the world sporting stage by finishing second on the IOC medals table.

The flag bearers of 201 countries entered the stadium informally, in a single file and behind them marched all the athletes. Lowering of the Olympic Flag and singing of the Olympic Anthem took place. A capacity crowd came together to say ‘goodbye’ to the Olympic Games. The curtain of the Athens 2004 came down with full of emotions, warm feelings, songs, dance with athletes coming together in a party-like atmosphere as one nation in the middle of the Athens Olympic Stadium.

Inspiration

Sports were what brought us up together and community of families with modest homes and strong values. They strengthened our ties to one another. Sports taught us self-confidence, teamwork, and how to compete as equals. Sports were a gift I shared with my loving dad, late Camillus Fernando. Some of my memories are sitting on his lap, listening to stories of Olympic legends including Duncan White as well as their brilliance and perfection. Like so many youth, I was inspired. I found myself dreaming that may be, just maybe, if I worked hard enough, I too could achieve something in life. My dad taught me the fundamental rules of the game, rules that continue to guide our lives today: to engage with honour, with dignity and fair play.

(The author possesses a PhD, MPhil and double MSc; his research interests encompasses Olympic Education, IOC and Sports; recipient of National and Presidential Accolades for Academic and Sports pursuits; his byline appears regularly since 1988)

 

Comments