Wait…aren’t we supposed to be at Olympics?

Posted on September. 14. 2020

By Stepan Piligian | The Armenian Weekly

For the first time in generations, thousands of Armenians in the US and Canada have an open date this weekend. Labor Day in America is synonymous with the end of summer and the beginning of a new school year. For Armenians, it is “Olympics” weekend. This is not to be confused with that other Olympics that takes place around the world every four years. Ours has been held annually since the mid-1930s when men and women of another era had the incredible vision to create this unique experience. The “recipe” is a brilliant combination of athletics and social experiences in a relaxing multi-generation atmosphere. What is truly remarkable is that the model has thrived for over 80 years and has been embraced by succeeding generations.

Athletics have always been a critical part of the AYF. Athletics are an important part of the lives of young people and what better way to experience this than with fellow Armenians. Track and field with swimming, tennis and golf make for a diverse sporting venue for what is now over four days. The format has been adjusted slightly over the years, but the core is intact. Co-ed softball has become popular and always attracts a top team from the West Coast to compete with their brethren in the East. The Friday evening alumni dance is always filled to capacity and reflects the unique and multigenerational history of this AYF tradition.

The “greatest generation” was the first to experience the AYF Olympics and the first to produce a large alumni community. What started as a youth weekend in the 30s quickly grew into a community of adults, youth and even newborns. The alumni component of the AYF is composed of dedicated and active community members who have continuously found their identity in the Olympics weekend. The Olympics has become such a traditional event in our community that it is nearly impossible to realize just how unique it is. The “generation gap” is absent at this venue. Each demographic finds their own identity in a safe and exciting long weekend. Really, how many places today are there where all age groups coexist in a family atmosphere?

Some of my closest friends to this day are from the AYF, and we have shared the Olympic experience for years. Larry Ovian became my best man at our wedding; we met at Olympics as he was “relaxing” by the elevator. It is an ongoing tradition for groups of alumni friends from Granite City, Detroit, Washington, New York, LA and Montreal to meet at the Olympics and enjoy a weekend of laughs and dining.

For our youth, the Olympics are a special social opportunity. Back in the day, the AYF Convention was at the end of June into the 4th of July. So many went from the convention to staff positions at camp to a smooth landing at Olympics on Labor Day. For many of these kids today, they go from Junior Seminar (350-400 youth) on Memorial Day weekend to camper, CIT or counselor participation over the summer at Camp Haiastan (or the AYF camps in California). Usually the camp season ends about a week before the Olympic weekend. The lucky kids are the ones whose schools start AFTER Labor Day (shouldn’t that be the case for all Armenian kids?). I used to watch with joy and pride as college students go to campus, register and even in some cases start classes, only to leave for Olympics that weekend. If you add today’s essentials of texting, Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms, results of these close relationships transcend geography and will be sustained for decades. The Olympics is special for our teenagers since they have more peer freedom to enjoy the weekend while their parents take comfort in the “group” format. Both perspectives are important. The kids won’t go unless they feel the flexibility to be with their friends and parents wouldn’t be comfortable unless they perceive it as a safe environment. The AYF solved these potential concerns decades ago with truly an unprecedented event for American Armenians.

In the mid-70s a proposal was made by the Central Executive and ratified by the convention of the AYF that has given continuity and continued excellence to the Olympics. The decision to create an Olympics Governing Body (GB) of skilled community members came about as a result of the increasing popularity of the weekend (over 1,000 people at a dance) and the contemporary complexity of following regulations and booking sports venues, hotels and other facilities. It is a major undertaking that rotates annually to different communities that must meet certain standards of excellence. The Governing Body assures the consistency necessary for continued success and eliminates the risk of learning curves with new locations. I have known several members of the GB, and I know they did their due diligence in what was a difficult decision to postpone the Olympics in Worcester this year to 2021 due to the pandemic.

The Olympics will return, and our appreciation will be even greater.

In the early days of the Governing Body, the late Dave Papazian was a fixture with his passion for athletics and love of his heritage. For many years Michael Varadian has devoted countless hours to assuring that this fixture in our community maintains its standards of excellence. The Varadian family has been involved in the development of the AYF Olympics since its inception in the 1930s. These are a few examples of why it has been sustainable. The absence of this triumph of tradition, along with the cancellation of the camp season, picnics and most community activities, has left a large but fortunately temporary void in our American Armenian life. One day soon, we will all look back at 2020 and view it as the anomaly it has become. The Olympics will return, and our appreciation will be even greater.

It is particularly fitting that the Olympics was to be held in Worcester this year (and will be held in 2021) given its iconic stature in not only the Olympics, but in the evolution of the American diaspora. Most families can connect significant personal events to the Olympics. You can hear attendees say, “we met at the 1990 Olympics” or “our daughter was born just before the 2004 Olympics.” I remember when the Olympics were held in Los Angeles in 1972, the humble and patriotic Samoniantz family (Serge and Mariam) welcomed a newborn that weekend. My own parents met on the field at the 1942 Olympics in Lawrence, MA. Dad went off to the war; by the grace of God, he returned safely and they were married in 1946. He continued to compete in married life. As children, they would bring us to Olympics to enjoy the athletic competition. In the evening, our grandparents would babysit as our parents enjoyed the dance festivities. Today it is common to see children of all ages attending the dances with their friends, family, peers or camp friends. In some cases, four generations are on the dance floor.

Like many of our traditions, we will wait until 2021 in Worcester. The story does not end with a cancellation. Thousands of us have been impacted and owe a debt of gratitude to the Olympics. This year we will not experience any records broken on the track or other venues. That will have to wait for next year, but there is another record waiting to be broken. The Olympics is not just a family tradition, but it is a significant contributor to the AYF budget to support its important programming in education and Hai Tahd. It is estimated that the impact of the pandemic has created a $90,000 shortfall in revenue for this year. To address this challenge, the AYF has decided to publish a Commemorative Olympic Ad Book in lieu of what would have been published by the Worcester committee. This book will feature information from the 86 years of the Olympics and provide a bridge for all generations. It is up to us, those who have benefited from this gift, to break the ad book record. Let’s make this the biggest and most meaningful collection ever. Ads can be submitted online; the deadline for submission is October 2. That gives us about one month to make this a financial success and maintain the spirit of the Olympics that even a pandemic can not dampen. For over eight decades (incredible), the Olympics and the AYF have provided this mutually beneficial venue for our community. All of us have received the joy of attending and participating, while the AYF has fulfilled its greater mission to our nation. In this unprecedented year, we have an opportunity, dare I say a responsibility, to keep the AYF whole during this temporary interruption. Do it because the Olympics has been a part of your life. Do it because it is important for the collective mission of the AYF. Do it for the future of our children!

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