Endurance junkie

The Man in the Spandex Tights

“I want to be writing about the colors of the sea,” Natalie said, “but I keep seeing a man in Spandex running tights.”

We were on the beach resting after our late afternoon swim. The wind had died down and the sea was a shimmering sheet of stained glass in panels of emerald, turquoise and sapphire. It was early September and the stream of the island’s tourists, never many even in high season thanks to the relative inaccessibility of the island and the deliberate scarcity of hotels and rooms to rent, had thinned to a trickle. The inlet was practically deserted, and the handful of others with whom Natalie and I were sharing the beach with could hardly be heard; we all spoke in hushed tones, a reverential counterpoint to the gently lapping of the sea against the pebbles at the shore’s edge and the bleating of goats in the fields behind us.

The man Natalie was talking about was the Prime Minister. He had run in the sideline 10 km split to the Athens 2010 Marathon last October. He had showed up at the starting line in knee-length Spandex running tights, hi-tech sun goggles and a pair of orange Phillips sport headphones that connected to his Apple i-Pod nano. I know they were Phillips headphones because I have a pair just like them. In fact, I also have Spandex running tights. Except that when I put on the gear and go out for a run, no one pays me much notice, even if I look a little ridiculous in the tights. When the Prime Minister goes running in this gear, it is an act of considerable symbolic power. Many people notice.

We had swum at Natalie’s insistence to the islet at the opening of the bay. “I want to see the beach from the sea, from the outside in,” she had said. I would have been content to swim back and forth along the shore, and told her so. “Why would you ever want to do laps in the Aegean?” she asked. It was more a scolding than a question. “You know, that’s exactly something he would do,” she said. She meant the Prime Minister.

I judged the distance to be only a half a kilometer and Natalie is a good swimmer, so she could easily have done it one her own, but my innate cautiousness and an equally ingrained sense of outmoded chivalry dictated that I accompany her. And she was right. From the islet we looked back onto an amphitheater of gentle foothills blanketed in a mauve and silvery green thicket of thistle, sage and lavender. The hills sloped down to a broad swathe of pasture before ending in the allée of sea-pines that stood like sentries at the back of the beach.

Wanting to see it from the other side. Perhaps that’s why she’s a writer and I’m not. That’s why she’s haunted by the man in the Spandex tights. She needs to write about the crisis, to understand it, to give voice to her anger.

“What was he trying to say getting dressed up in his superhero costume for a 10k run?” she said. “A fucking 10k run! So typical. So over the top.”

I don’t know what message the PM wanted to send, but it can’t have been what he intended. (It is too disturbing to think that there wasn’t any intended message or that he didn’t even consider that a message could be sent.)

The gear, which, together with his running shoes, cost the equivalent of the starting salary of an unskilled worker, was the kind worn by competitive athletes and early-adopter fitness buffs with a penchant for technology. There were a couple of reasons you might wear it. You might wear the gear to look the part or impress, though few of us have the butt and gut to pull off Spandex. But most of us wear it for comfort. It is much nicer running 10 km without your balls chafing against a cotton jockstrap and sweat dribbling down and stinging your eyes. And comfort, in turn, might give you an ever so slight competitive edge over the guy next to you when he starts bleeding in the crotch. The edge is mostly psychological, though. The gear cannot correct for more fundamental problems of endurance, gait and flexibility.

In different times one might admire the man in his running gear. Yes, here’s a man of who takes care of himself, a man of determination and self-discipline who doesn’t care what other people think of him. One might think that these qualities are the ones he brings to task of governing the country.

But what most people saw, I think, was a man outfitted in expensive hi-tech gear, awash in the music coming from his playlists on the nano and oblivious to the sounds of the crowd. And most people probably thought, this is how he governs the country. They saw a man who put too great a faith in technical solutions to what is fundamentally a political problem. They saw a man out of touch with what was happening around him, a man who literally does not hear what his people are saying.

If he had been listening, he would have spearheaded a concerted effort to bring even a handful of corrupt officials and politicians to justice. I am not naïve. I know that graft on its own does not explain the massive public debt that Greece has incurred. It does not on its own explain the appalling waste in the public sector and the stifling bureaucracy. And I know that the conviction of a hundred embezzlers and tax-evaders and bribed officials will not right the economy. Yet I also know that the country is seething with rage. I hear the voice of anger every day. I hear it at work, at the gym, on the trolley, at the grocer’s. I hear it from friends who teach at university and the guy I buy flowers from at the farmer’s market. It is impossible not to hear the anger. And it is not just anger at salary cuts and tax hikes, the loss of jobs and the curtailment of pensions. I hear, too, the sound of righteous indignation over the perverse injustices of a tragically dysfunctional economy and the asylum accorded to those who have plundered the wealth of the state.

There is much I do not understand about this country, and perhaps in this way the PM and I are alike. At times I can even see myself in him—his uneasiness with the demonstrativeness and immediacy that seem to characterize Greek public behavior, his awkwardness with the finer points of the language, his embrace of technology and technocracy—though this could all be sheer projection. But unlike him, I do hear the anger.

“Greece is running a marathon of its own. Together we will finish, and quickly, I hope,” he declared at the start of the race.

Yes, the marathon is a test of endurance, a matter of pushing beyond what you thought were your limits, and in this way the metaphor captures some of what the majority of Greeks are now experiencing. But only in part. If the marathon is a struggle, it is a solitary one: even if tens of thousands of other runners are doing the course with you, you are running on your own. Marathon running is not a team sport. Yet it is precisely this sense of committed collective effort for a common purpose that is required if the country is to emerge from this current morass of recession, stifling taxation and unemployment.

Leadership forges such a vision of common purpose not in rhetoric alone but more importantly in acts—including acts of primarily symbolic significance—that can persuade ordinary women and men that all are contributing their fair share to reforming and rebuilding the country. But we do not have this vision. We know that the privileged are not sharing in our sacrifices equally. We have no evidence that corrupt officials are being brought to justice. We see that the public sector remains bloated and inefficient. We witness the announcement of reforms but hear nothing of their implementation.

Technical solutions are needed, of course, the infrastructure and technological equivalents of the runner’s Spandex and hi-tech goggles. Tax evasion and fraud can’t be addressed if IT systems are too antiquated or unsophisticated to mine the databases in ministries and agencies to cross-check assets against income. But the problem is essentially one of political leadership and vision. Without a leadership willing to confront entrenched interests, slash waste from the public sector, responsibly privatize state assets and liberalize the economy, there will be no development.  But will is not in itself sufficient. Any measure that seeks to uproot privilege, any measure that threatens vested interests will be sabotaged further down the line of command and at the front. Reform is bound to fail if will is not accompanied by political savviness, alliance-building, and broad public support.

“Greece is running its marathon,” the Prime Minister. Did he not see the cruel irony of the metaphor? There is no captain on the marathon. We are all on our own.

The metaphor ultimately doesn’t hold. We are not running a marathon. We are, instead, on a long forced march, uprooted from a place that was never ours to begin with, a virtual land of false prosperity and hollow promises, acquired through promissory notes we could never repay, a parallel world to this land of pebble beaches and terraced olive groves, of honest toil and decent people. Under the watchful eyes of our troika guards, we are trudging along a course that leads us to ever more treacherous, ever more barren ground. There is no goal in sight, or if there is one, the line keeps being redrawn, farther and farther away.


2 responses to ‘The Man in the Spandex Tights

  1. Excellent piece..the best I’ve read so far on the Greek crisis. I couldn’t agree more with the analysis, the analogy, the metaphor.. We Greeks are not very good at team sports – team work – team effort; yet, we are not into the ‘lonely’ sport either. I’m not sure where this leaves us.


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