The Unique and Enduring Legacy of the AYF Olympics

AYF Worcester alumni marching in Sunday’s parade. (Photo: Rich Kanarian)

With the holiday weekend approaching, I thought I was well prepared for this week’s column. The topic was selected, research completed and a draft nearly finished before the long weekend. Then I went to the Olympics! My thoughts became fixated on this remarkable event we call simply “Olympics.” The original topic will have to wait until next week. It was perhaps naive of me to think an Olympics so close to home could pass without some acknowledgement here. AYF Olympics weekend is one of those rare experiences that brings everyone to their past, present and future. My colleagues will write with great competence about the athletic results and the faces that make up this remarkable organization. I will focus on the soul of this iconic gathering now in its 88th year.

In our “modern” times of compressed time schedules, distance and limited generational commonality, the Olympics defies logic and restores our confidence that there is value in tradition. As we age and watch our children and grandchildren follow the same path, it reaffirms the journey we followed was the correct one. Who could have imagined that the first Olympics held at that field in Brockton, MA and won by Worcester (this year’s host) would have evolved into the incredible pan-Armenian gathering it has become? Nearly all of my closest friends began as Olympics friendships. We had our AYF membership in common and found our identity together in our heritage. The Olympics is an opportunity for us to experience the journey of life together despite the distances. AYF members, after all, are well-trained in the art of traveling. We continued that into our adult lives, adding spouses, children and pets along the way. The AYF family knows no geographical boundary.

This year was particularly special for many of us since it marks the 50th anniversary of the AYF Convention in Cleveland, where many of us cemented our eternity bonds and our passion for Hai Tahd became our purpose. Because of the AYF and particularly the Olympics, our spouses have become close friends, our children know each other and we have celebrated the weddings of each other’s kids. We are now working on the grandchildren’s connections. Where would we be without the AYF? I often ask that question when we gather. Certainly a more boring life…

The Olympics is an opportunity for us to experience the journey of life together despite the distances.

One of the more fascinating aspects of Olympics weekend is the multitude of intra-generational joy generated in parallel under the AYF umbrella. Take the Friday night dances for example. The hugely popular Alumni Dance started at 7 p.m. with the band playing until about 10:30. I was a bit winded by that time and went out into the lobby where several hundred teenagers and 20 somethings were making their way into the dance as the next band took the stage. It was a visual metaphor of the generational sustainability of the Olympics. As much as I enjoyed seeing friends and engaging in meaningful dialogue, my heart was filled with warmth to see so many young Armenians from all over the country being there because it was where they wanted to be. They come because the identity connection with their heritage has been successful. This generation, like its predecessors, has chosen to attend, making the Olympic experience a vital part of their lives. I used to hear the same from my parents’ generation when they explained their reasons for attending, and I know that my generation feels the same way. The thousands who travel to attend is overwhelming evidence of a special connection. Despite their tremendous popularity, the games are not quite on auto pilot. We must always appreciate the legion of volunteers that enable the required infrastructure for success: those manning concessions, monitoring the dances and supporting the athletes during the tournament. As I wandered around all weekend, I did not hear any complaining. Those working were experiencing the joy of service to a remarkable cause. Tired, yes…but not discouraged. The hundreds, perhaps thousands, who were receiving their services were polite and appreciative of their sacrifices. Many had been in the shoes of hosting or will be in the coming years. Essentially, regardless of your role, the feeling of family is ever present. We must internalize how truly unique this is.

The social and athletic impact on the AYF youth should never be underestimated. For many of the athletes, participating as part of their chapter team is a great self-esteem builder and the foundation in building interpersonal skills. Many chapters ask members to choose an event or may even ask them to fill a need. This creates a sense of responsibility to a greater goal than themselves and teaches them important life lessons. Whether you are from a large chapter in the thick of the competition or from a small group, the Olympic spirit transcends all of this into a competitive, but caring environment. Sportsmanship through winning and losing is an important behavior to acquire at a young age. Humility is an admirable quality that is gained through both success and adversity. This is how respect becomes the pillar of our relationships.

As we watch all the individuals with chapter names emblazoned on the uniforms, we all realize that the real winner is the organization that gives these members the gift and a nation that awaits their service. When I joined the AYF at the age of 13, I volunteered to be on the local chapter dance committee. It was a different feeling of responsibility to participate in the planning of such an event: renting a hall, securing a band and generating publicity. Little did I know that the AYF was teaching us project management skills at a young age that would be beneficial for a lifetime. Think of all the project opportunities for AYF members when participating in planning an Olympics. At a time when “helicopter parents” are limiting responsibility, the AYF has been working to empower its members. The long-term benefit of this approach is to have individuals who are capable of taking on responsibilities at a young age in the church, community and in their personal lives. On a lighter note, I recall an awesome attribute when I first learned Armenian line dancing: you could cut in anywhere next to whomever you wanted to meet. These are just a few of the micro-dynamics that occur every Labor Day. I personally thank the AYF and applaud its devotion to a model that contributes to the maturation of our youth and a stronger Armenian nation. If you look at the Governing Body of the AYF Olympics, just like the Camp Haiastan Board, they are loaded with alumni whose organizational experience is evident. The AYF Olympics takes an incredible amount of resources to be successful. It is a statement of credibility that the AYF Olympics continues to attract the resources and sacrifices to sustain the model annually. These volunteers can’t help but think of their time in the organization as the primary motivation. When I attend an Olympics, I think of my parents who took us to the games at a young age to ingrain this culture into our lives. “If it’s important, you make the time” was the philosophy of my mom and dad. Thankfully, it was a motto held by many of their time. It is quite apparent when I see the young kids dancing, the strollers at the games or the variety of out-of-state license plates that the commitment has not waned. Let’s be honest. If the recipe was perceived as unattractive or unfulfilling, it would have been abandoned due to diminished participation. When we see a record number of registered athletes and thousands attending dances, it seems to be a reasonable assumption that members of the young generation are experiencing a strong identity with the Olympics and their heritage.

[RELATED: Sponsor a page in the 2022 AYF Olympics Special Issue]

The legacy of an organization is tied to the impact it has made in its sphere of influence. In 1933, the AYF was formed, and in 1934, the first Olympics were held in order to gather together a new generation of Armenians born in this country. There was grave concern by the survivor generation that the youth would assimilate into the American way of life and forget their heritage. The mission of the AYF was to provide an environment that would satisfy the needs of American Armenian youth. Athletics and social activity were a major part of the AYF of the founding generation. The educational and cultural activities were enabled by the AYF, providing a fulfilling social environment for these youth. It is a model that has met the test of time. Many AYF members started in athletic and social endeavors and later connected with Hai Tahd and community management responsibilities. My own application stated my desire to play basketball. The training for this future has been nurtured in planning events, working with a team of individuals and growing other applicable life skills. In that sense, the AYF and the Olympics have been a leadership development program for our youth. Every experience offers views of the past, present and future. When you attend the Olympics, take a moment to appreciate the skill of our new generation. The use of digital technology and social media has enhanced the depth and breadth of communication and program management. The introduction of software programs to increase the speed and accuracy of athletic competitions has added a new level of professionalism to the games. This will only encourage additional participation and ensure the continued credibility of the games. The AYF Olympics has provided a platform for youth development, the reunion of friendships and tangible evidence that although the process has naturally evolved, the core mission has remained intact. The AYF has given all of us a remarkable gift regardless of your generation. That is the beauty of the experience. The Olympics will be self-sustaining as long as volunteers identify with the intent and the community is the beneficiary. The Olympics in Worcester 2022 seems to confirm the mission accomplished. 

Stepan Piligian

Stepan Piligian

Columnist
Stepan was raised in the Armenian community of Indian Orchard, MA at the St. Gregory Parish. A former member of the AYF Central Executive and the Eastern Prelacy Executive Council, he also served many years as a delegate to the Eastern Diocesan Assembly. Currently , he serves as a member of the board and executive committee of the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR). He also serves on the board of the Armenian Heritage Foundation. Stepan is a retired executive in the computer storage industry and resides in the Boston area with his wife Susan. He has spent many years as a volunteer teacher of Armenian history and contemporary issues to the young generation and adults at schools, camps and churches. His interests include the Armenian diaspora, Armenia, sports and reading.
Stepan Piligian

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