A nervous world learned the Greek word for "thank you" and repeated it endlessly at an astonishingly successful Athens Olympics that quelled fears, surprised skeptics and greatly honored the birthplace of the games.
Efharisto, Athens, for architectural masterpieces of stadiums and arenas that showcased record performances. The fountain sprays, reflecting pools and soaring arches. The undulating, giant white Wall of Nations that caught the whispering wind, bringing music to our ears and smiles to our faces.
Efharisto for the thousands of security forces who stood guard day and night, keeping terrorism away. An undercurrent of danger, a sense of tranquility. We saw guns everywhere, walked in peace.
Fireworks and spectacular lighting kicked off the closing ceremony Sunday night, as an extravaganza of folk dancing and music in the Olympic tradition that summed up the glee and relief the games brought to Greece. Shortly afterward, thousands of athletes marched into the stadium, waving their arms and flags, snapping photos of each other, hugging, and bathing in the cheers of 70,000 fans.
"You have won," International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge told the Greek people, who responded with a roar. "You have won by brilliantly meeting the tough challenge of holding the games.
"These were unforgettable, dream games."
He was right, even if they started slowly the first week with empty seats and vacant plazas as many Greeks took their holidays and frightened tourists stayed away. The second week saw the games transformed. The huge Olympic stadium was packed each night for track and field. Basketball, tennis and beach volleyball rocked.
There had been no shortage of worries that Athens would not be ready for these games. As late as March 2000, the IOC considered moving the Olympics out of Greece, possibly to South Korea.
"It's always nice to underpromise and overdeliver," said Jim Easton, an American IOC vice president.
Athletes who finished their events partied, roaming the Plaka, Syntagma and Omonia squares. It was Greece at its rollicking best, a spirited fusion of visitors from all countries, and of all colors and ages. It reminded us again, at a time when we need all the reminding we can get, that the Olympics celebrate humanity's highest aspirations, the universal quest for peace and the exalted qualities of body, mind and spirit that transcend cultures.
Efharisto, Athens, for coupling the ancient with the new, putting up with years of jarring construction, spending billions beyond your budget, and giving us a glimpse of your future as a sophisticated, modern city.
"The world discovered a new Greece," said Athens 2004 president Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, who made it all happen with her fierce determination to overcome construction delays and avoid an international humiliation.
These games took us to their sacred origin in Olympia, the mythological home of the gods, to watch the shot put, to Marathon to stand on the spot where the race got its name.
We trod like pilgrims to a shrine up the dusty stones of the Acropolis to gaze with awe at the 2,500-year-old Parthenon. Our imaginations did the rest, letting us feel the spirit of Socrates, Plato and Aristole; Pericles and Alexander the Great; Hippocrates and Herodotus; Euclid and Pythagoras -- that brainy bunch who laid the foundation for our culture.