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ATHENS 2004 | Bill Plaschke

Return Was More Than Fare

August 30, 2004|Bill Plaschke

ATHENS — Wrinkled pictures of saints are taped to the sun visors, giving him hope.

A turquoise stone hangs from the rearview mirror, protecting him from evil.

For more than 40 years, cruising the streets of Athens in his yellow cab, Ioannis Zavos has surrounded himself with good spirits, never realizing he was becoming one himself.

He has rushed expectant mothers to the delivery room. He has carried weeping widows in funeral processions. He has saved lives, saved time, saved confused tourists and lost children, always thinking nobody cared but the saints and the stone.

Until this week, when, for one athlete who could have been 10,000 athletes, Ioannis Zavos saved an Olympics.

*

The story of a cabby is the story of a country.

Few thought Zavos, a member of one of the most distrusted working groups in this country, was worthy of an Olympics.

The same for Greece.

Few thought either would be ready. Few thought either would be safe. Despite years of history, few had the faith to climb inside and go for the ride.

Two weeks later, as the splendid Games ended Sunday, both are owed one big segmome.

An apology, yes, for not understanding the Greeks' passion for their birthright and their willingness to sacrifice upon its return.

An apology for not realizing that the Athenians not only hung those "Welcome Home" signs, they took them seriously.

They embraced athletes with sparkling new venues, even though some will be torn down because the struggling economy cannot pay for the upkeep. They respected fans with politeness and patience even though, not living in a prime tourist destination, they probably will never see them again.

They cheered for the events in tavernas and city squares even though few of them could afford tickets. They kept their cars out of designated Olympic lanes even though it meant traffic jams elsewhere.

They were hurt when those wallet-fattening Americans stayed home because of terrorist nerves, but I was never threatened or challenged or felt anything but completely safe at all hours anywhere.

"Why are you so afraid of us?" they would ask me and, after two weeks, I could not answer.

Which brings us back to the extraordinary tale of Zavos the Greek.

*

It was late last Sunday night, and 68-year-old cabby Ioannis Zavos was nearing the end of his shift when he picked up a lanky man in a tavern district and drove him south to the sea.

He remembers the man was wearing a credential around his neck, the first such person who had been in his cab the entire Olympics.

He remembers it with a smile, because he and his partner had been ordered by the government to buy a new cab for the Games, yet he had hardly driven any Olympic visitors, because there weren't many.

"I have to work two more years now to pay off the Olympic cab," he said. "And for what?"

On this Sunday night, he was about to find out. After his passenger disembarked, Zavos drove around for a couple more hours, returned to the garage in the early morning to clean out the cab, and there it was.

In a velvet pouch wedged between the front seat and door.

An Olympic silver medal.

Zavos hadn't seen one before. He hadn't even been to an Olympic event before. But he held it in his hands and he knew.

"I thought of the sacrifice that went into winning this medal," he said. "I thought, that poor man."

It was long after midnight, so he tucked the medal in his cloth satchel and brought it to his two-bedroom apartment above the auto repair store in working-class Athens. His wife, Aggeliki, was waiting for him.

"Look!" he said, and together they held it, and dangled it, and then Zavos couldn't help himself.

He stood in front of his mirror, draped the medal around his neck, and raised his chubby arms to the sky.

"I am an Olympic winner!" he shouted.

Aggeliki laughed and begged him to stop.

They have lived 35 years in the same apartment. They have a 38-year-old daughter who lives with them. They have never traveled out of the country. Zavos works six days a week and smokes one pack of cigarettes a day and wears thick glasses that sit on a stubbled face above a round belly.

Aggeliki knew they were solid people. But they were not, she figured, Olympic winners.

Zavos knew what he had to do. The medal contained a drawing of a rower. He knew he had to return it to the rower.

But the next morning when he arrived at work, it was all upstream. Word of his discovery had spread, and other cabbies met him outside the garage, offering him money for the medal, telling him he was foolish to give it back.

One offered the equivalent of $600, which is more than Zavos makes in two weeks. Another worker reminded him that the Olympic rower would probably just get a new medal, so why shouldn't Zavos keep it?

"I heard it all, but I could not listen," Zavos said. "It was not my medal. What was I going to do with it, keep it in my closet? What would it mean to me? There is no sweat in that medal for me."

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