HOW HE SEES IT The pride of the Greeks comes alive again
By JOHN KASS
Watching the televised opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games in Greece, I couldn't help but think of my father when I was a boy.
He hoped we'd retain our Hellenic heritage, but he wanted us to be American.
Sports were the key to being American as far as we kids were concerned. Unfortunately, he didn't know much about baseball.
They didn't play baseball where he was from, the tiny and poor but beautiful village of Rizes in the mountains of Arcadia, Greece. There weren't many White Sox fans there. But they had other sports.
In our tiny back yard in Chicago -- where my brothers and I breathed our first fresh air after years of living under a brown livestock cloud issuing from Chicago's Union Stockyards -- he decided to introduce us to the sports of the old country.
Our own creation
So one day a large red dump truck came up the driveway. It dumped a mountain of glistening black cinders. With a shovel and hoe, a roller and a wheelbarrow and by himself, Dad went to work. The neighbors came out and put their elbows on the fences and watched, wondering what he was creating out there.
Sadly, it wasn't our baseball diamond.
It was something else, a cinder path about 3 feet wide that traced the edges of the yard, an oval flat and glistening in the August sun. He'd dug out another section of the yard for a cinder pit. There wasn't much grass left.
"What do you think?" he asked in Greek, sweating through his T-shirt, proud, chugging down a glass of ice water, satisfied with his labors.
But since there was no pitcher's mound, or baselines, we didn't say anything.
We just stood there, frowning and stunned.
"What? You don't like it?" he asked, astonished. "It's a track, for running. You run around it. You race each other. And this is for the broad jump. You run and jump and see how far you can jump."
We stood there, mute.
"Think of the Olympics," he said. "You can have the Olympic Games here."
Hearing something in his voice, some desperation, an acknowledgment that his big idea wasn't working out, we pretended we were finally excited at the prospect of having the Olympic Games in our yard.
As a father of 9-year-olds, I can tell when they're truly excited and when they're faking it to please. We were faking it then, and we weren't trying too hard.
We ran around the track to please him, and we jumped into the pit of cinders. But it wasn't fun. The cinders got into your shoes and down your back and they itched.
It was almost as much fun as rolling around in the alley in the old neighborhood, but without the rats and the smell of 30,000 hogs.
And after leveling the running track and digging the pit on his one day off, he was depressed that his hope of introducing his sons to Olympic sport was a failure.
The track stood out there, lonely, for a year or two, until finally it was covered with sod.
How we changed
Years later, when my brothers and I were grown, on our one family vacation together to Greece, we spent a day with our parents, wandering through the ancient stadium at Olympia.
And our attitudes had changed.
We walked through the narrow tunnel, the same tunnel the Olympic athletes had walked, and out onto the field.
That's when I decided to run the sprint over the same ground where the first Olympians had run some 2,700 years ago. There was no plan to this. It was an impulse. In Greece, impulse isn't illegal.
There were signs in English prohibiting tourists from running. A German tourist waddled up and for some reason he decided to impose order. Perhaps he thought running there wasn't respectful. He pointed to the signs. "No," he said, shaking his finger. "No."
The poor man must have thought he was in a church. But if he was, then he was in my church, not his.
The field was deserted. The ground was sandy and warm. There were thin patches of long grass sprouting. "No." the tourist said. And I ignored him and got into a three-point football stance and ran my sprint.
I didn't run to please my father. I hadn't thought of the cinders in Chicago. And I didn't think of myself as some kind of Olympian.
It wasn't a fantasy. This was a run on solid ground, not some dream. It was homage, a connection to the Greeks who'd run there thousands of years ago when sport began.
On Aug. 13, I thought of all the families like mine gathered around televisions watching the opening ceremonies, our hearts happy and breaking.
The families of Greek immigrants watching from America to Australia, and those who remained in Greece, we're all so very proud and nervous and hoping that these games will be peaceful and successful.
The Olympic Games are home, where they were born, where they belong.
XJohn Kass is a columnist at the Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.