ANCIENT OLYMPIA, Greece, May 10 (Reuters) - Aphrodite Tagios broke down in tears as cream-robed priestesses struck graceful poses on a grassy slope at the birthplace of the Olympics in a solemn ceremony that reminded her of her country’s glorious past and how far it has fallen since.
With debt-stricken Greece risking bankruptcy and an exit from the euro zone, many Greeks watched the Olympic torch-lighting ceremony in the ruins of ancient Olympia on Thursday with bittersweet pangs of pride mixed with sadness and anger.
“I wanted to scream to all Greeks that they have to remember the Greek spirit because we’re losing it,” said the 33-year-old Tagios, one of some 5,000 spectators who gathered on the slopes of an ancient arena to watch the ceremony unfold.
“The spirit that we saw here and what it represented - we just don’t have it anymore.”
After an economic boom in the early 2000s, the country that gave birth to the Olympics today is mired in its fifth year of recession that has left one in five Greeks jobless.
While ceremonial priestesses danced in sandals and invoked the sun god Apollo to light the Olympic flame, Greek politicians in Athens, a four-hour drive away, squabbled over forming a new government after elections last week, pushing the country deeper into turmoil.
The once-mighty nation today depends on financial aid from partners to avoid running out of money, and its current state of affairs is particularly galling to local archaeologist Kostantinos Antonopoulos.
He gets a daily taste of Greece’s past splendour as he works amid the toppled columns and ruins of this small town where men from all over Greece first competed in 776 BC, in honour of the father of the gods Zeus, for a wild olive wreath.
Tucked away amid olive, pine and towering oak trees, the ancient arena where the high priestess handed the flame and an olive branch to the first torchbearer on Thursday was measured by Hercules, according to myth.
“I think every day - how is it possible that a country with this civilization, with this cultural heritage, ended up in a situation like this?” said the 38-year-old Antonopoulos.
Like many others across Greece, he has felt the blow from the crisis first hand. Multiple rounds of spending cuts imposed by Greece to get its finances on track have slashed his salary by 40 percent, leaving him with 800 euros to get by each month.
“We’re hanging on by our fingernails,” he said.
Reinforcing the sense of despair, armed thieves overpowered a female guard and looted a museum in Olympia earlier this year, making off with over 70 bronze and pottery artefacts.
The town’s mayor, Eythimios Kotzas, says Olympia is surviving the crisis better than many others in Greece due to a reliance on foreign tourists, who continue to arrive in buses and cruise ships.
However, locals say the Greek tourists who arrive rarely spend much money and the Olympic torch-lighting ceremony - and the crowds it brought to the restaurants and shops - was a welcome break.
“The Olympics are very poignant for us,” said Nikos Doulas, a 32-year-old as he sat in the town-centre restaurant that his grandfather opened in 1937.
“I am proud of the Olympics but disappointed by our present state. We are just not the same as our ancestors.” (Editing by Clare Fallon)