It's almost midnight in Athens, but the city is buzzing. Outdoor tavernas are overflowing with Greeks and international visitors savoring the party atmosphere of the Olympics. Among Americans and Australians, all the talk is of Michael Phelps and Ian Thorpe; of the star- studded gymnastics and beach volleyball teams; of high-profile stars like Marion Jones. But even sports fans who've travelled over an ocean to get here are hard-pressed to name American athletes contending in more obscure sports, such as javelin-throwing, windsurfing, or weight lifting - especially if they're only potential silver or bronze winners.
Not so among the Greeks, where everyone from hairdressers to engineers to ladies who lunch can rattle off the names of nearly every local boy and girl who won a medal in Sydney and are contending here at home. Not only that, but they often call them by their first names alone, or even affectionate nicknames.
Dimitra Makrionati, an elegant Athenian matron out for a traditional evening volta - family stroll - explains: "We are a poor, small country, but we have a wealth of heart and emotion. We have very few top athletes, so the medals they win, and the emotion we feel when they win - these are our wealth," she says. "I think Mirella [Maniani, who won a silver medal in Sydney for javelin] and Tassoula [Anastasia Kelisidou, who won a silver medal in Sydney for discus] will bring medals for us. They're wonderful girls."
Even in the sports-obsessed US, few grandmothers would know the names of such second-place medal winners, asserts Antonis Papoutsos, a sports editor at the Greek weekly To Vima. "Greeks don't have much of an athletic consciousness. Very few Greeks play sports, or even exercise. But all Greeks know who the Olympic athletes are - even the minor ones are celebrities," he says.
There aren't that many to name, of course. Compared to the US haul of 97 medals in 2000, Greece brought home only 13, mostly silver and bronze. The Greek Olympic Committee hopes to double that take during the Athens Games.
In Greece a single athlete winning gold, no matter how obscure the sport, can spark major trends. After Michalis Mouroutsos won gold in tae kwon do in Sydney, a craze for the sport - previously unknown in Greece - swept the country, with dojangs opening up all over Athens. The victories of weight lifter Pyrros Dimas, who won gold in the Barcelona, Atlanta, and Sydney Games, led to the construction of a showcase weight-lifting stadium for the Athens Games - one of the only venues that was completed on time in Athens' delay-plagued Olympic preparations.
Of course, Greeks always feel a special affection for sports that remind them of their heritage. Over spit-roasted souvlaki in an outdoor taverna, electrician Dimitris Dallas says he also has high hopes for Kelisidou, the discus-thrower. "My favorite is classical athletics. I think all the Greeks feel it's important to get a medal in the sports that began in ancient Greece - this would be the true return of the dream."
Until just this weekend, Greeks were pinning their hopes on two high profile stars - glamorous runners who both won medals in Sydney. But Kostas Kenteris, who won gold in the 200-meter sprint, and Katerina Thanou, who won silver in the 100-meter dash, were suspended from the Games on Saturday, after they skipped a mandatory doping test and a follow-up disciplinary hearing.
Many Greeks burst into tears at the initial news of their fallen stars. But after a few days passed, locals said they refused to allow the scandal to ruin their Olympic experience and were looking to other athletes to bring glory home instead.
Vaso Dali, an engineer, said she was crushed by the news of Kenteris and Thanou. "I had tickets to see Thanou run the 100 meters, so it's a big disappointment. But the main thing is that the Olympics are still a great opportunity for modern Greece." In terms of hometown heroes, Ms. Dali is turning her hopes to Pyrros Dimas, the weight lifter.
Many other Greeks say that in the wake of the Kenteris and Thanou scandal, their hopes also lie with Dimas, even though Mr. Papoutsos, the sports editor, says it's unlikely the athlete will repeat his gold-medal feats of previous Olympics.
"Pyrros Dimas is the face of Greece right now," he says. "Considering the circumstances with Kenteris, I think he's going to try even harder for gold. He has all the weight of Greece on his shoulders."