Dark Days In Greece Brightened By Olympic Flame

May 10, 2012
Originally published on May 10, 2012 9:50 pm
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In Greece, economic and political turmoil have left Greeks feeling divided and deflated. The talk in Athens today was all about new elections and an uncertain future, but it was a different scene in the southern town of Olympia. That's where, earlier today, the Olympic flame was lit for the London games and, as Joanna Kakissis reports, people were able to forget, for just a moment, their many troubles.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Olympia is a small and scenic town tucked into a lush valley of olive trees in the Peloponnese. It's built around the site of the ancient Olympic Games first held in 776 B.C.

Olympia's 1,500 residents live off this heritage. There are 10 museums, though one was robbed in February. The main street is dotted with shops selling souvenirs depicting ancient athletes.

Five thousand visitors crowded Olympia's main street on this sunny morning. They came to attend Olympia's signature event, the lighting of the Olympic flame. It would begin the torch relay of the 2012 London games.

Chamber of Commerce President Constantine Michalos used the occasion to show off local products.

CONSTANTINE MICHALOS: Extra virgin olive oil, fresh fruits and also pickles, gourmet pickles from Pepperoncini.

KAKISSIS: The crowd walks through fields of blooming flowers to reach a grassy slope above the stadium. The people listen to an actor declare, this is where the light will be reborn. Schoolteacher Sophia Medamella(ph) drove two hours to attend. Like many Greeks, she's had her wages cut because of austerity measures that have dragged the country's recession into a fifth year.

SOPHIA MEDAMELLA: (Through Translator) Because of the economy and the instability of the government this year, I feel a little sad. I know my country's managed to get out of much worse in the past. I'd like to think we can do it again. It's our responsibility.


KAKISSIS: Sophia holds up a Greek flag. She and the rest of the crowd clap when ceremonial priestesses in cream-colored robes dance in. An actress posing as the high priestess appeals to the sun god Apollo. She ignites the Olympic torch in the Temple of Hera with the help of a parabolic mirror. She passes the torch to Spyros Gianniotis, a Greek swimmer born in Liverpool. He begins the seven day leg of the torch relay in Greece.

The torch will be handed over to the London 2012 organizers on May 17th in Athens.

When the crowd walks back to town, Corinna Spilapoulo(ph) is waiting for them. She has a stand with photographs.

CORINNA SPILAPOULO: We made pictures of the opening ceremony for the Olympic Games in London 2012 and hope to sell them to the tourists, to the local people so they have something to remember.

KAKISSIS: Are people buying them today?

SPILAPOULO: Not as expected.

KAKISSIS: She says she practically sold out of the photos in 2004 when Athens hosted the Olympics. Now, the economic crisis has hurt Olympia. Everyone seems to blame Germany and that's Corinna's home country. She's married to a Greek and says Olympia's her home. She's lived here for 20 years.

SPILAPOULO: This is the first time that so many shops, also, on the main street are empty. Nobody takes the risk to rent them. Tourists spend less money than they used to.


KAKISSIS: By midday, she has to close up shop, too, because there's a big rainstorm, and as the rain pours in the town empties. The crowd packs into buses and leave. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in ancient Olympia, Greece.


BLOCK: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.