This column appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on Aug. 12, 2004.

An Olympic journey for the ages

By Ed Odeven

You will be bombarded with human-interest story after human-interest story for the next 16 days. It happens every Olympiad. This is the downside of having countless hours of TV coverage.

How many of these stories will you actually remember? Five, maybe 10. It’s mind-numbing overexposure.

Well, my friends, this story isn’t one of those dime-a-dozen, force-it-down-your-throat stories. Nope. Not by any stretch of the imagination. This, I believe, just might be the most fascinating — or certainly in the top one percentile — of all stories associated with the 2004 Athens Games.

This is one woman’s remarkable journey of Olympic discovery. It began in India in April 2003 and ended in Ghana in May 2004. In between, Greek Cypriot photographer Marina Shacola visited 25 countries on five continents — well, for this project the Americas are considered one continent. (The Olympic flame, by the way, traveled to 26 countries in its 2004 globetrotting adventures.)

Eight-hundred and twenty-five rolls of film later, Shacola had the basis for a fascinating, bilingual (Greek and English) book. “Athlos” features 135 photographs of the 25 Olympic-caliber athletes Shacola shot, using black and white and color film. Interestingly enough, “Athlos” has two meanings in ancient Greek — “great achievement” and “training.”

“I called it this way because these athletes, and every athlete who trains at this high level in order to achieve their dream, have already accomplished a great achievement — regardless of whether they make it to the Olympic Games or not,” Shacola said Monday in a telephone interview from her hometown of Nicosia, Cyprus.

Twenty-two of the 25 athletes she visited made their respective Olympic teams. The 25 subjects represent a blend of up-and-coming athletes and reigning world champions, from well-known nations (U.S., Brazil, South Africa) and obscure countries (Samoa, Micronesia, Nauru).

A former member of the Cypriot women’s national basketball team, Shacola said she wanted to do something special for the 2004 Olympics to honor her Greek heritage.

That’s what prompted the idea for this book, which was published recently.

“It was quite difficult for me at the beginning,” Shacola said. “I had to also find someone to help me contact the athletes.”

Assistance from the Cyprus Olympic Committee was priceless. The association’s president contacted the International Olympic Committee in Switzerland, and the IOC hired Shacola to create this book. The IOC helped Shacola with her research for the book and in contacting various Olympic committees around the world.

Even so, there was plenty of stress for Shacola and Andreas Antoniou, Shacola’s artistic supervisor, during this time-consuming project.

“I had to worry a lot (about finances),” Shacola said. “It was quite difficult to get money. But I was very lucky again, because British Airways and Cyprus Airways were my sponsors.”

Eastman Kodak provided her with all those rolls of 35 mm film for the book.

“Right until the very end, I didn’t know if I would manage to complete this project, because … from the beginning it was too difficult,” Shacola said.

First stop: Asia. Why? “Because it was most difficult for me in terms of problems with language and so on,” she said. “Right until May 2004, the last country I had been to was Ghana, and the concept was not complete.”

Shacola spent, on average, around a week in each of the 25 nations. After India, she went to Malaysia, South Korea and Japan in succession.

Little by little, Shacola saw the project taking shape and she began to revel in the emotion of making progress.

“It was like a big celebration,” she said with a delightful giggle. Then she described her mind-set along the way. “OK, 20 (countries left), 15 left, three left!”

China presented the biggest challenge to Shacola. Due to the SARS outbreak of 2003, she rescheduled her trip to China three times. Talk about persistence.

“It was too much. I couldn’t risk it. If I got stuck in China, then the whole project was toast,” she said.

She finally managed to make it to China in March and met Liqin Wang, a reigning Olympic gold medalist in men’s table tennis (doubles) in Beijing.

On the cover of the book is Athens resident Pericles Iacovakis, a bronze medalist in the 400-meter hurdles at the 2003 World Track and Field Championships.

“Actually, I didn’t want to put him on the cover of the book,” Shacola revealed, “because I didn’t want the Greek guy to be there just because it’s the Olympics in Athens.”

But, in the end, Shacola decided a photo of Iacovakis was the perfect choice for the cover.

“The reason I like it is because he represents exactly what the athlete is all about and for me also the true Olympic spirit, which is: The moment when he’s resting, when he looks tired — some people will say he’s fainting with eyes shut, with mouth half open — and for me that’s representative of the life of each athlete,” Shacola said as the inflection of her voice grows more excited with each syllable.

“We are used to looking at athletes the moment before they either run, if they are an athlete in track, or if they play in the game, when it’s the most beautiful moment, with the beautiful clothes. But the athlete is not that. The athlete is all the time before he reaches that moment, which is all that very, very hard work until he manages to get on the track, or, for example, before the starting point.

“For me, this is what the whole Olympic spirit is about: How everybody is fighting to surpass their own limits.”

Australian swimmer Grant Hackett, the reigning gold medalist in the men’s 1,500-meter freestyle who trained at Northern Arizona’s High Altitude Sports Training Complex in May and June, is featured in the book.

Others who grace the pages of the book include: Romanian gymnast Monica Rosu (the 2004 European Championships gold medalist); Moroccan boxer Tahar Tamsamani (a bronze medalist in the 57-kilogram weight class in 2000); Brazilian beach volleyball star Sandra Pires; Seychellois sailor Alain Julie; Ghanan soccer captain Yussif Chibsah; Russian water polo goalkeeper Valentina Vorontsova; Cuban volleyball captain Yumilka Ruiz; and Samoan judo performer Travolta Waterhouse.

Also included in the book are photos of perennial NBA All-Star point guard Jason Kidd, who turned down a spot on the American basketball squad for personal reasons. (He was very cooperative during the photo shoots, she said.)

This was an exhausting undertaking, but one that Shacola will never forget. Was it the most rewarding project of her life?

“Definitely, but I hope it won’t be the last,” said Shacola, whose work is featured in an Athens exhibition until the end of the Summer Games.

Patience, an open mind and a kindred spirit carried Shacola as she worked around the globe. Interpreters played a big role, too.

As she looks back on her travels, she offered this insight into the project:

“I don’t think I have recovered from the experience yet, and I hope I will never recover. I think the experience has changed me. I think people have more differences and more similarities than we think. And I was very glad to find out that yes, people are different, and that makes them all so much more interesting.”

On Thursday, Shacola traveled to Athens, where she’s attending the Olympics as a spectator. And it’s obvious she can hardly wait.

How excited is she?

“Too much. I think I’m going to take part. I think I’m actually one of the athletes,” she said, laughing.

She’s not an Olympian, but she produced a magical book about Greece’s wonderful gift to civilization.

Now she deserves a break from work.