By Jenan Taylor.
A tussle in Berwick over a Greek statue in the midst of its ANZAC memorial strip may shed light on suburban dynamics.
Tom Watson keeps most of his collection close at hand in a yellow folder. Aristos Panagakis binds some of his memorabilia in a purple file.
Watson’s appears to be the sum total of everything that has ever been said or written about Australian Olympian, Edwin Flack.
Panagakis’ collection is largely focussed on Spyridon Louis, the Greek Olympian who beat Flack at the 1896 Games.
Watson, a former football coach lives in Berwick and is the town’s unofficial sports historian. Despite nursing a broken hip he’s likely to be found calling out advice and noting scores at district ovals on weekends.
However Watson is better known for bringing Flack’s achievements to prominence locally. He established the Edwin Flack Reserve, a sports ground at a high school near the edge of town and helped get Flack’s name inscribed on a tombstone at Berwick cemetery.
Watson also helped get the Olympian’s bronze sculpture installed in Berwick’s High Street in 1996.
“He won our first ever gold medals and because of him Australia’s been represented at every modern Olympic Games. And only two countries have – that’s us and Greece. If he hadn’t done that, Australia wouldn’t have been represented at every Olympic Games,” Watson says.
Panagakis is a slight, softly spoken former marathon runner. He migrated from Greece some 40 years ago, the same year he narrowly missed being selected for the Olympics himself.
Now the 74 year old lives in Reservoir and with his son, George, helps head an organisation dedicated to promoting youth athletics.
Panagakis volunteered at the Sydney and Athens Olympic Games, plans to do the same at Rio in 2016, and is a regular visitor at Burbank Estate, the former Berwick home of Edwin Flack. There he marvels at the height of the olive trees he says Flack planted on his return from Athens.
He believes Australia and Greece have been joined at the hip through wars, sports events, and in social outlook.
“Only two countries have ever been present at all the Olympics Games: Australia and Greece,” Panagakis says.
The pair’s similarities are such that when their worlds collided they should have been comparing and swapping thoughts about their heroes over an ouzo or a beer.
At the 1896 Olympics Louis, a humble labourer from a town called Maroussi, won the race. But Flack won the adoration of the Greek population, and became known as the “Lion of Athens”.
Louis and Flack’s legends are something many sport-loving Greeks grow up hearing. Like the Olympic Games themselves, their achievements seem etched in Hellenic memory.
So, when the Victorian Multicultural Commission granted Panagakis’ organisation, The Australian Hellenic Organisation In Support of the Olympic Spirit and Ideal, $25,000 for a statue of Louis, Panagakis’ thought his dreams had come true.
In 2011, Liberal MP Brad Battin enthusiastically proposed the organisation place it in Berwick alongside Flack.
“The Casey Council agreed to it, so it was good,” Panagakis recalls. “We immediately told everyone. From the local athletics clubs, to the Australian Olympic Committee, to the council in Maroussi, everyone heard about it.”
The organisation managed to raise a further $13,000 for the statue from a jubilant Greek community. “But I never dreamed that the Berwick people would be against it,” Panagakis says.
Two stone lions and a large cenotaph dominate Berwick’s leafy main street with its clutch of banks, real estate agents, retailers and cafes.
By 2 pm on Saturdays usually only a few traders remain open, and only the occasional din caused by a bored 20-something-year-old in a hotted-up car might break the quiet.
Long-established and powerful interest groups frequently stop developers, and each other, erring too much from the town’s heritage.
When they heard of the Greek statue, nearly all the local business and rate-payer groups, as well as the RSL and football clubs, rebuffed it.
The RSL believed another sport icon near the cenotaph would trigger an avalanche of inappropriate statues in a “… dedicated commemoration area”.
The football club decided resident and former footballer Michael Tuck should be immortalised there instead.
Watson led the charge with a petition. “I got 200 names in a couple of hours at a footy match. I could have got 1000 signatures, but I wanted to get it in quickly, that’s how much every one thinks of Tuckey. Why would you put a Greek who beat Flack and has nothing to do with Berwick there?”
The groups formed a coalition and demanded the council reverse its decision.
In the lead up to the area’s council elections, they had the mayor’s ear. Louis would go to the Edwin Flack Reserve near the edge of town.
But this March, the councillors decided to approve the Greek statue in High Street, after all.
The coalition’s yellow flyers splashed across some shop fronts condemn the council and the statue.
Coalition member and head of the rate-payers group, Annette Aldersea, has been particularly vocal. A ream of the yellow flyers sit on the counter of her interior decor shop and she says many people are interested in the issue.
“I know of elderly people who don’t have a computer going to the council about this, and there have been a few kids in here as well. They ask, “Spyridon who?” or “What’s a Spyridon?”.
“The irony of all this is that we’re finally going to get a statue of Lord Casey up. He did so much for the district in his life time. We’re raising $100,000 toward it,” she says.
George Panagakis says his father has been “petrified” by the backlash. “It’s very disappointing. We think near Edwin Flack’s statue is the right place for Spiro’s statue. But at the end of the day, we just want everyone to be happy.”
Former Berwick resident and journalist Peter Sweeney wrote a biography on Edwin Flack. He says nothing in his research has suggested that Flack had befriended the Greek. “There’s just no proof they even spoke to each other.”
Aristos Panagakis says there is proof, but “…This is not about whether they were friends. All athletes, especially when they meet at the Games, are friends. It’s about the spirit. The idea … of working together.”
However Sweeney says he is mystified by the Greek gesture. “I’ve been doing sports journalism for a long time. This idea of sports embodying such noble stuff is just rhetoric, really. My journalistic instinct doesn’t buy it.”
Victoria University history professor Robert Pascoe can’t see the harm in the Greek statue. “There is no rule that says a statue cannot be erected anywhere, so long as it is not offensive in any way,” he says.
“In Hastings there is a statue of Essendon great John Coleman, and the people who don’t follow football don’t even notice it, even though it is in the main street!
“The statue does not suggest Greeks are superior to Macedonians, or Greek men are superior to Greek women, or anything else …”
Panagakis believes Berwick has lots more to gain by having the sculptures together. “There are 87 sports clubs in Victoria. Imagine the buses, all the visitors coming to see Spiros and Edwin,” he says.
To some extent that may explain why some of the coalition groups decided to reach a compromise with the Greeks and the council, last week.
The local chamber of commerce and the RSL shocked objectors by saying they would be comfortable if Flack was removed from his place near the cenotaph and placed further up the street. Louis could then sit next to him.
Chamber of Commerce president Harry Hutchinson has in the past spoken about the village’s Chapel Street-like potential. The way forward, he believes, is to be more accommodating to potential customers.
For Watson the split is the last straw. “It’s unbelievable. I don’t know anyone on this side of Berwick who wants the Greek statue on High Street.
“We said they could take it to the Edwin Flack Reserve, but now I don’t even think I want the statue anywhere in Berwick at all.”