By Penny Kastaris
Getting a good classical education took on an added meaning for 250 students at PS 205 during a recent presentation on the three-thousand-year history of the Olympics. This school-wide assembly at Bayside, New York included simulations of the Games, video clips from former Olympics and keynote speeches from Nikolas Nikolidakis, Education Attaché for Consul General of Greece, and Olympian Michael Panagiotis Voudouris.
With Athens 2004 quickly approaching, educational programs on the Olympic Games have increased. Education Attaché Nikolidakis has given over 50 presentations at public, parochial and Greek afternoon schools within the Tri-State area. Not to mention the teacher awareness initiative conducted by the UFT/Hellenic American Educators Association during one of this year’s educational fairs.
But what helped make this May 6 Olympic program extra special was that it was the brainchild of a committed parent. In the week before Mother’s day, Mrs. Paulina Makris, mother of 8-year-old twins Ioulia and Vasia and 18-month old Yiorgos, quickly transformed what could have been a smaller scale visit to her daughters’ second grade classes into an interactive school-wide event.
“Originally, I just wanted to go to my kids’ class and talk to all the children about the Olympic Games, ancient and modern, and celebrate our Greek heritage.” But after doing more research and working the phones, Mrs. Makris booked the key speakers, received Olympic handouts and stickers from the NYC2012 office, worked with Principal Susan Sherer who arranged the assembly and contacted this reporter for press coverage on the event.
Quit impressive for someone who is not a professional event planner, but all in a day’s work for a good Greek mother on a mission, especially when it involves her kids and education.
The rest, as they say, is history. Olympic history that is—past, present and future presented to the students of PS 205 in grades two through five. During the opening, Principal Sherer explained that this program was meant to help them learn about what it takes to be a champion in the Olympics, as well as in life.
Mr. Nikolidakis began by giving the students a primer on the Olympics. He talked about their Greek genesis at Olympia in 776 BC, discussed the modern era starting in 1896 which marked the revival of the Olympics, talked about the 2004 Summer Games, which will celebrate the 108-year anniversary of the Olympics return to their birthplace, and even covered the upcoming games in 2012, which will, hopefully, take place in New York.
The Education Attaché, himself a former teacher, got the students involved by asking them questions. Then he elaborated on the answers in his high tech presentation, which included computer generated simulations of several Olympic sports, pictures of famous Olympics symbols such as the Olympic Torch lighting ceremony, the Olympic Flag with its five rings representing each continent, and classic Olympic art including the famous 45-century-old painting from Crete showing two Olympic boxers competing.
The majority of the audience ranged in ages from 8 to 11, yet they were quick studies in learning about the Olympics old and new.
For Athens 2004, the Education Attaché also explained the upside accomplishments in Greece: 65 thousand new jobs were created, 1.3 billion dollars in revenues were generated for the public sector, 120 kilometers of new roads were built; and, in keeping with the Olympic values for protecting the environment, 300 thousand new tress and one million bushes were planted.
Like a sports commentator, Mr. Nikolidakis gave his play-by-play on the film clips that he presented from former Olympics, which included the 1908 Games in London, the 1936 Games in Berlin and the 1996 Atlanta Games.
This was followed by an in-person presentation by Olympian Michael Voudouris, who proudly competed for Greece on the skeleton during the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah. He is also noteworthy as a sports photographer and an EMT who courageously provided rescue efforts during the September 11 events.
The Queens native spoke about his joy for sledding downhill during the snow days of his youth and shared that he was only eight years old when he began dreaming of competing in the world’s most famous games: “the first magic moment is deciding that you want to participate in the Olympics; the second magic moment happens when you pick your sport.”
Once he became an adult, it took Voudouris eight more years to make his dream a reality, accomplished through good old-fashion hard work, dedication and sacrifice.
Along with his Olympic uniform and helmet, he brought the actual skeleton that he used in the 2002 Winter Games, which he described as the bear bones in your body or a sled. Then he showed the actual video of his high-speed Olympic competition, when he zoomed downhill and around ice-covered curves in speeds of 75 to 80 miles per hour. As the video showed him reaching the finish line, the children erupted in applause as if the competition was happening in real time.
“When the Games come to New York City in eight years, someone here may be an Olympic athlete,” Voudouris said. “The only way that will happen is if you decide now.” He encouraged the students to “watch the Games in the summer, find a sport and start practicing.”
He added that the road to Olympic victory will require “doing your homework, studying hard and living well, meaning eating right, not smoking and not doing drugs. Then we will come back here to watch you do a demonstration like this.”
That Olympic hopeful for the 2012 Games may very well be 10-year old George Hatzioannides. He sat in the front row with his buddies, who were quick to point out to this reporter that George is also Greek as they asked him a series of questions about the Olympics before the presentation began.
At the very least, this second-generation Hellenic-American, who is an altar boy and goes to Greek afternoon school, has gotten a good head start: George has already won multiple awards in basketball, track and field and soccer during the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese District Olympics at Stony Brook, as well as being a skilled baseball player.
Whether on or off the field, George gets plenty of encouragement from his mother Nitsa and his father Larry Hatzioannides, a human resources professional who volunteers as the Youth Director for JOY and GOYA at St. Demetrios Orthodox Church in Jamaica. His mother explained during a telephone interview that the value of participating in Olympic inspired church and school sporting events teaches young people “to compete strongly and still remain friends with the other kids.”
During the Olympic assembly, Mrs. Amalia Zapantis-Dalamakis, one of the teachers at PS 205 and a frequent visitor to Greece, also spoke about the Olympics and displayed souvenirs for the Summer Games including musical dolls of the two Olympic mascots– Athena and Phevos.
The well-mannered and inquisitive students included the grandson of former New York Yankee Mickey Rivers. These young New Yorkers represented a cross-section of children from various cultural backgrounds, reflective of the global community which will soon be viewing and even participating in Athens 2004. Yet, regardless of their ethnic roots, these students all became honorary Philhellenes through their appreciation of the Olympics and the values that the Games represent.
This was evident in a number of the thank you notes that were sent to guest speakers Nikolas Nikolidakis and Mike Voudouris. Along with expressing their appreciation for the presentations and giving examples of what they learned, a number of the students included sketches of the Olympic symbols such as the five rings, the winner’s wreath, and even a graphic of Voudouris on his skeleton. Perhaps their sentiments were summed up best in n the words of a second grader who wrote “thank you for letting us know that the Olympics came from Greece” and how “cool they are.”