With his big, thick right hand, Pete Clentzos slaps his belly. The hand bounces off.
"The belly's solid," he says.
He's right. At 95, Clentzos still has an athlete's body. He's sitting on the roof of the Plaka Hotel with a red baseball cap perched atop his weather-beaten face, an honored guest of the Greek government. Clentzos -- an American who competed for Greece as a pole vaulter in the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles -- is the oldest living former Greek Olympian. That's impressive enough. But his most important accomplishment was not athletic. It was linguistic.
Pete Clentzos is the man who gave the world the phrase "hubba-hubba."
Imagine that! For decades, countless men have watched countless beautiful women walk down countless streets and expressed their admiration by muttering "hubba-hubba." Yet few had any idea who coined the famous phrase.
"I'm the guy who invented 'hubba-hubba,' " he says.
He says it coolly, matter-of-factly, with no trace of braggadocio in his gravelly voice. The truly great are always humble.
It's not that he isn't proud of "hubba-hubba." He is proud. For two weeks he has been feted in Athens for his Olympic accomplishments -- the mayor presented him with the prestigious Medal of the City of Athens. But does his official curriculum vitae identify him as Mr. Olympics? No, it does not. It identifies him as "Mr. Hubba-Hubba."
There are many former Olympians, but there's only one inventor of "hubba-hubba."
The great pole vaulter/phrasemaker was born in Oakland, Calif., in 1909, son of a humble carpenter who had immigrated to America from the Greek island of Kythera. Clentzos took up pole vaulting in high school in the 1920s, then perfected his art as a member of the University of Southern California track team in the early '30s.
In 1932 Clentzos tried out for the U.S. Olympic team, hoping to play for his native land at the Los Angeles Games.
"I didn't make the team," he says. "I fell short."
He did well enough, however, to attract the attention of the Greek attache, who recruited Clentzos and awarded him dual citizenship on the basis of his Greek heritage. He lived with the Greeks at L.A.'s Olympic Village and competed in a Greek uniform.
"I was very proud to play for Greece," he says. "Greece was my heritage."
Alas, he came in seventh.
"I had a bad day," he says. "Oh, God, I was crushed."
Three years later, in 1935, he did better, competing in a meet at Athens's Panathinaiko Stadium, where the 1896 Olympics had been held, and vaulting 13 feet 5 inches, a Greek record that stood for 15 years.
Back home, he found a job teaching history and coaching the football team at a high school in Barstow, Calif. It was there that "hubba-hubba" was born.
In those days, Clentzos explains, Barstow was a rural town and students were bused to school from long distances. Consequently, Clentzos had to rush through football practices in 40 minutes, and he took to yelling at his players: "Hurry up, hurry up, up, up."
Soon, he says, that humble chant evolved into "hubba-hubba."
During World War II, Clentzos became a physical trainer at the Santa Ana Army Air Base in Southern California and he used "hubba-hubba" in his workouts.
"It was something to get them going," he says. "It was a motivational thing. I'd yell, 'Lie on your backs, lift up your legs, pat on your bellies and yell hubba-hubba!' " he recalls. "I tell you, 225 guys yelling, 'hubba-hubba' -- it makes a lot of noise."
The phrase soon became famous. In his hotel room, Clentzos has an old clipping from the Santa Ana Cadet, the base newspaper, that describes "hubba-hubba" as "a modern war cry that may become as famous as the old rebel yell." The article is illustrated with a picture of Clentzos bellowing "hubba-hubba." The caption reads: "Lt. Peter Clentzos, cadet instructor, gives voice to his battle cry."
As his cadets went off to war, Clentzos says, " 'hubba-hubba' spread around the world."
Along the way, the meaning of the phrase was altered. "Some of the cadets, when they saw a pretty gal, they'd say, 'hubba-hubba,' " Clentzos says, "and the connotation changed to that. . . . I think having them pat their bellies may have had something to do with that -- giving it a sexual connotation."
Clentzos isn't thrilled with the new meaning of his phrase. "I don't like that part of it," he says. "I like it as an athletic motivator."
After the war, Clentzos moved to Los Angeles, where he and his late wife, Helen ("Helen of Troy -- she was born in Troy, New York," he says) raised their son, Peter Jr., now 58. Clentzos worked as a high school teacher and coach and then became a Los Angeles public school administrator. He retired in 1974 but kept active as a football referee and an after-dinner speaker.
Now, sitting in the hotel's roof garden, with the Parthenon looming only a few hundred yards away, Clentzos launches into some riffs from his after-dinner speech.
"I was officiating at the asylum," he says. "The schizophrenics were playing the hypochondriacs and both teams were using an unbalanced line. The coach ran out to the huddle and I said, 'You can't do that' and I walked off a 10-yard penalty. He said, 'You don't know the rules -- it's a 15-yard penalty.' And I said, 'The way you're coaching, it's only 10.' Some women in the stands yelled at me: 'If I was your wife, I'd poison you.' I said, 'If I was your husband, I'd take it.' "
And so on. Apparently, Clentzos's jokes are nearly as old as Clentzos.
When he's back home, Clentzos says, he goes to the Pasadena Athletic Club every day to work out, lifting weights, doing calisthenics and swimming.
"If you sit around like an old car, your tires will start to crack and you'll fall apart," he says. "It's better to wear out than to rust out."
He pulls out a piece of scrap paper and sketches the horseshoe shape of Panathinaiko Stadium, where he set his pole vault record in 1935. He draws two squares to indicate the two statues that sit in the curve of the stadium.
"One is of an old man and one is of a young man," he says. "They're both naked. And the old man's [penis] is sticking up. And the young man's is down. So the message to the young athletes is: Abstain from sex." He smiles. "But when you get old -- go for it."
To that statement, there is only one appropriate reply: