Olympics? What Olympics?
On this beautiful Greek island, only a two-hour boat ride from Athens, the only sign of the Olympics is a store selling official Athens 2004 souvenirs. Customers are scarce.
"When the Olympics are over, people will be sad," a young woman at the help desk in the Olympics' Main Press Center in Athens had said. She had a suggestion for fighting the post-Olympics blues: Go to Hydra. Jump into the sea.
The hotel desk clerk in Athens had agreed. "Hydra is very beautiful," he said. "Have lunch at the cafe. Get the barbecued octopus. And order the house white wine. It's better than the bottled wine."
The suggestions proved wise.
On Sunday afternoon in Hydra, life is quiet and slow. The sky is blue. The sea is blue. The houses are whitewashed. The sun is hot but the breeze is cool. Only two athletic events are in progress. One is equestrian: Hydra has no cars, so if you want a ride, you have to hire a donkey. The beasts carry tourists' luggage up the rocky hills. It's a kind of Greek dressage.
The other athletic event is, of course, swimming. There is no beach, though. You climb the rocks, then dive into the sea. This isn't the kind of swimming Michael Phelps did so well in Athens, where the object was to swim as fast as you can while staring at a black line on the bottom of a chlorinated pool. On Hydra (pronounced E-dra here), the idea is to swim as slow as you can while staring down into the salty sea, marveling at how many shades the color blue comes in. On Hydra, swimmers compete for the gold medal in sloth. They float for hours, counting blues, until the barbecued octopus lures them back in.
Floating in the sea at Hydra, the Olympics seem long ago and far away. Some of it seems like a dream. Did Venus Williams, the tennis star, and Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, really appear at a McDonald's contest where teams of Mickey D's employees from around the world competed to see who could build a Big Mac the fastest?
Yes, they did. And Williams took the opportunity to utter what might be the weirdest quote of the entire Olympics: "As a child, I always dreamed of being a McDonald's athlete," she said, smiling sincerely. "It's a dream come true."
Basking in Hydra's warm sea, far from the ceaseless clamor of Athens, you get a chance to ponder the events of the last few weeks, when the Greeks, who invented the Olympics nearly 3,000 years ago, taught the world a few lessons about the Olympic spirit.
Before the Games began, the world media pummeled the Greeks, accusing them of various sins, including not finishing the stadiums soon enough and not being serious enough about security. Now it's time to eat crow: As it turned out, the Games ran smoothly and the Greeks were delightful hosts. Thousands of Greeks volunteered to help out at various venues, and with few exceptions they were polite, helpful and good-humored.
Even at the anti-Colin Powell demonstration the other day, most of the folks were friendly.
"Do you speak English?" I asked one demonstrator.
"A little bit," he said.
"What does that banner say?" I asked, pointing to a sign scrawled in Greek on a bedsheet.
He said he couldn't translate it. He sounded a tad surly, like maybe he didn't want to help the American press. But 10 minutes later and a few hundred yards away, he rushed over, smiling, and provided a full translation.
You've gotta love people who'll go the extra mile to help you out even when they're demonstrating against your government.
And here is another story about the Greeks and the Games: Three weeks ago, before the Olympics began, I happened upon about a hundred people in traditional Greek garb, parading through downtown Athens. The parade was the brainchild of Demitris Talaganis, a local architect and artist. He'd created a series of Olympic-related artworks, then recruited a hundred of his closest friends to deliver them to a gallery in grand style. I interviewed Talaganis and included a few paragraphs about his parade in an article.
A few days ago, he called to say he'd been inspired to create an artwork for me and he invited me to come to his studio to pick it up. I went and he presented me with a beautiful artwork -- a paper-thin piece of silver etched with a picture of an Olympian in an olive wreath crown. My name was etched into it, too, along with the dates of these Olympics and Greek words that mean "I was there, too."
It was beautiful. I was touched. I accepted it gratefully -- how can you explain to a man who just made you an artwork that your company doesn't allow you to accept gifts from sources? I would deal with that when I got home.
For now there was another problem: How could I get it home? It was too big for a suitcase and too big to carry onto a plane.
I took it to the post office in the basement of the Main Press Center. I waited in a long line -- it's a busy place -- and showed it to the clerk, asking her advice on how to ship it home. As I expected, she said the Greek post office does not wrap items and I'd have to find a box somewhere and . . .
Her boss, a middle-aged man, came over. He looked at the artwork. "It's beautiful," he said.
I told him the story.
He smiled, studied the artwork, then carried it over to a box. It didn't fit. He carried it to another box. It didn't fit. He carried it into the back room, trying to find a box that would fit. He couldn't. He signaled that I should wait. He took out a roll of bubble wrap and wrapped the artwork over and over again. He measured the package, took out a knife and began cutting up cardboard, building a box for the artwork. It took at least 20 minutes. When he was done, he handed it to one of his clerks. She weighed it, charged me for the postage, produced a receipt.
"If there is any problem," she said, "call me." Then she wrote her name and phone number on the receipt.
It's not behavior you expect from postal clerks.
Is this the Greek spirit? Or the Olympic spirit? Or both?
Last week, Pyrros Dimas, the great Greek weightlifter, competed in the Olympic weightlifting hall. The place was packed with screaming fans. Dimas is a national hero, winner of Olympic gold medals in 1992, 1996 and 2000. When he prepared to lift, fans yelled "shhhh" and the place fell silent so Dimas could concentrate.
Near the end of the competition, with just one man left to lift, Dimas was in third place. The final competitor, China's Aijun Yuan, was in fifth. If he made his final lift, he would win, destroying Dimas's chance for a medal.
I expected Dimas's fans to holler, boo, wave flags -- anything to break Aijun's concentration. That's what NBA fans do when an opponent takes a key foul shot. But I was wrong.
"Shhhh," the fans hissed. The hall fell silent.
Yuan concentrated but failed to make the lift. Dimas got his medal.
The Greek fans deserved one, too.
Corny as it may sound, there really is an Olympic spirit. And it has been on display in Athens for the last several weeks, exhibited by athletes, fans and ordinary Greeks on the streets.
In a world where people regularly kill each other for power and wealth, 10,000 athletes from 202 countries managed to gather in one place and compete in a spirit of peace and friendliness. It is something worth celebrating.
At the Opening Ceremonies, which now seem so long ago, I sat next to a veteran Australian reporter. When his country's team marched into the stadium, he stood and cheered and waved. When he sat back down, tears were rolling down his cheeks.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I always cry at the Olympics. I'm sorry."
No need to apologize, friend. Now, I know just how you feel.