As Greek weightlifting champion Pyrros Dimas grunted and successfully jerked a 440-pound barbell above his head at a stadium in Athens, shouts of pride and relief rang out 120 miles away in a tiny village high in the Oligyrtos Mountains. "Pyrros! Pyrros!" chanted a half-dozen old men, seated outside a bar on the main square.
The 2004 Olympics may be in Athens, but they belong to all of Greece. For the 886 inhabitants of Kandila, a sheepherding, tomato-growing village sequestered in a remote part of the Peloponnesus, the Games are more than a chance to watch their athletic heroes on television. They are a reminder that, for once, the world's sustained attention is focused on their country of 11 million people, instead of the other way around.
"Every Greek in every corner of the country is rejoicing at the fact that the Olympics have returned to Greece because of the simple fact that this is the birthplace of the Games," said Vangelis Drossou, the mayor. "It is a matter of national pride for us Greeks in Kandila. The Games may not benefit us directly here, but it is a marvelous thing for the whole country."
The Olympics have their ancient roots in this stony and arid part of Greece. It is well documented that the Games obtained their namesake from the city of Olympia, on the western part of the peninsula. Less well known is the fact that they also once were contested on the other side of the mountain from Kandila, in Nemea.
But while people here are watching from afar, the Olympics have not disrupted the rhythms of rural life. Few people from Kandila have traveled to Athens to see the Games in person. Tickets and hotels are expensive, plus it is harvest time for many crops here.
And while televisions in two of Kandila's cafes are tuned to the Olympics 14 hours a day, few people pay attention in the morning or during the traditional afternoon siesta, which can drag into the early evening. A reporter wishing to interview the mayor, for instance, is informed that he usually doesn't wake up from his nap until 7 p.m.
But when dusk falls and the mountain breezes bring relief from the heat, the men playing canasta on a green felt table at Ziazias cafe, a popular watering hole, put down their cards and turn their chairs to face the television set. About 20 others gradually assemble at the bar -- in the shadow of the sky-blue dome of the Greek Orthodox church -- on the periphery of the village square to watch the evening's Olympics competition.
"Everybody is so happy about the Games, all over Greece," said Costas Ziazias, 59, who worked as a grocer in South Africa for 30 years before coming back to retire. "It is an amazing moment for us."
Tonight's headliner event is weightlifting, featuring Dimas, an undersized Greek hero and three-time gold medal winner. A native of Albania, his likeness is featured on dozens of billboards in Athens with the slogan, "Impossible Is Lifting Your Country."
Such bold sentiment is not widely shared in Greece, where insecurity is a common national trait. Every time Dimas steps up to the platform and wipes his hands in chalk, the square in Kandila grows quiet as the men grip their strings of worry beads a little tighter "Ahhh, don't sit on your butt!" cajoles one old man, fretting that Dimas will collapse under the attempted weight. "I can't look."
"His wrist, his wrist," bemoans another man. "His leg is hurt, too."
The doubts quickly turn to cheers as Dimas cleanly lifts the assigned weight above his head and shoulders, making it to the next round of competition. But the anxieties don't go away. Dimas is an old man by weightlifting standards -- he is 32 -- and despite his three previous gold medals, nobody here is getting their hopes up too high. (In fact, Dimas later wins the bronze in his weight class, and is given standing ovations all over Greece.)
For many rural Greeks, the biggest wonder of the 2004 Olympics is that the Games have come back to this ancient land at all. An estimated 1,000 people gathered in Kandila's village square to watch the Opening Ceremonies on a wide-screen television and marvel at how athletes from 202 nations were honoring Greece with their presence.
People in Kandila are especially proud that the Games so far have gone smoothly, with few hitches or complaints. But some can't shake their insecurities about Greece's moment in the sun, fretting that something bad is bound to occur sooner or later.
"I'm nervous as can be, because you never know what is going to happen," said Vasileios N. Xirogiannis, 33, who runs a small taverna outside the village with his brothers. "It's always in the back of your mind, that something is going to go wrong. People worry that maybe we will not manage it properly, or that there will be a terrorist attack or something.
"But it's been worth it so far, no matter how much it costs. Everybody is seeing Greece, seeing it exposed to the whole world."
Like many residents of the village, Xirogiannis has a keen sense of how his country ranks as a small player in the world. He lived for two years in Chicago with an uncle but decided to return several years ago. Emigration takes a steady toll on the population here, which shrank by more than 25 percent during the 1990s as people left to seek a better life elsewhere.
The world may be a fast-changing place, but Kandila is not. Drivers must navigate the herds of sheep and goats that claim the main road as their own. The school was built in 1928 with a cash gift from a native son who went on to earn riches in America. Ziazias cafe does have a sign on the window boasting of "Internet Access," but the proprietor admits it rarely works.
At the cafe, almost all the patrons who gathered to watch the daily show on the tube were men, with a handful of boys in the mix. One exception: Georgia Xirogianni, a member of the local government council, who sat down for a beer after the mayor waved her over.
"More women follow the Games at home," she said. "It's quieter there. Besides, weightlifting is not a sport that women are very interested in."
Not exactly true, according to Stavroula Drossou, the 16-year-old niece of the mayor. In a sign that the Olympics are indeed responsible for bringing some social change to this isolated village, Drossou reveals that she is a big weightlifting fan. She became attached to the sport as a young girl, when her father gave her a set of weights to practice on, and has always idolized Dimas for bringing glory in the sport to Greece.
"He's my favorite," she said, slapping the back of her hand in her palm for emphasis. "He makes me love the Olympic Games!"