The first gold medal goes to The Spectator for last week’s leader ‘First gold to Greece’. My country had been unfairly maligned by Western hacks —those pure sportsmen who gracefully hurdle over bar stools while busy filing phony expense accounts — but (with fingers crossed) Hellas has been vindicated. Whoever wrote the leader will feel Taki’s teak deck under his feet sooner rather than later. Before I go on about the Games taking place under the Acropolis and in Olympia, a brief parenthesis about the Mexico City Olympics of 1968.
My good friend Jean-Claude Sauer and I had ended up in Los Angeles on our way back from Vietnam. JC was the top Paris- Match photographer at the time and had left Saigon having got a little too close to Air-Marshal Cao-Ky’s wife, or so rumour had it. My first wife, in the meantime, had dropped me like the proverbial hot potato and had gone to live in Mexico City. Both of us decided to watch the Games from the safety of Hollywood and Vine. We had a good buddy living there, Pierre de la Salle, Pitou, as everyone called him, husband of that divine model Suzy Parker.
Welcoming us, Pitou hand-delivered an enormous chocolate cake to the bungalow JC and I had rented for the fortnight, forgetting to mention that it was made mostly out of very strong hashish. Our daily was a very jolly and very large black lady who easily weighed 300lbs. She would arrive around 10 in the morning, scold us for having left whiskey bottles all over the place, and shoo us out of the house so she could make herself a cup of coffee before starting to clean. Which she didn’t do too efficiently because she was addicted to daytime soaps.
On that particular morning I left to play tennis and Jean-Claude went to photograph some models. He picked me up at the Beverly Hills Hotel and we drove back to watch the Olympics after a quick lunch by the pool. What we found was our cleaning lady passed out on a sofa with a very sweet smile on her face and the TV on. We tried to wake her but it was impossible. I thought of calling an ambulance but then Jean-Claude took a look inside the fridge and saw that more than half the chocolate cake was missing. When he tasted it, the penny dropped. She was stoned out of her mind. After a couple of hours — we were too scared to call the cops or an ambulance — we decided to phone her home number. I did the talking as JC’s French accent would have aroused xenophobic sentiments, especially once we had informed her daughter that her mother was lying comatose on our sofa.
The young girl who came round turned out to be a sweetie-pie. She had two braids and the thickest pair of glasses I have ever seen outside Mr Magoo cartoons. We spent the best part of the afternoon and early evening trying to rouse her mama, who finally came around totally unaware that she had been spaced-out for hours.
What does this have to do with the Athens Olympics? Not much, I agree, but every time I see the five-circle logo of the Games I think back to the cleaning lady lying stoned on the sofa, all 300lbs of quivering flesh, and I have to smile. When we told Pitou who had eaten the cake, he almost gagged with laughter.
But back to Athens. Yes, it makes one proud to be Greek. Despite the undeniable shame all the country feels about Katerina Thanou and Kostas Kenteris, this is the best Games I’ve ever been to — and I’ve been to a few. The atmosphere is great; the city wonderful. I recognised many of the old medal-winners who carried the Olympic flag into the stadium just before the flame was lit. Especially Petros Galactopoulos, the Graeco-Roman wrestling champ with whom I used to train in Athens. I don’t know whether King Constantine was offered a place carrying the flag, but he was our first postwar gold- medal winner, and he deserved to be among them.
This is certainly Greece’s high moment. We won the European Cup in football and we will win lots of medals — I’d say three times the number that Britain will, and then some. We Greeks have taken a lot of stick from low-life Americans who wouldn’t know the difference between a McDonald’s arch and the Parthenon, but here we are, the smallest nation ever to host the Games, and they’re already a far, far greater success than those the Coca-Cola company hosted back in 1996. I cringed on seeing athletes on parade using their mobiles, but this is the modern world.
I’m on my way to Olympia, in north-west Peloponnese, to that green valley full of pine and poplar trees, scented by thyme and oregano, where one can almost hear the groans of the ancients as they strived for glory and a simple olive wreath. We Greeks gave the world its cultural heritage. Now we will give them the greatest Olympic Games ever. Zito Hellas.