BY MARK GAVOOR
The Armenian Youth Federation was founded in 1933, a mere 18 years after the horrors of 1915. It has served the Armenian youth in the United States for 86 years since then. The AYF has nurtured and preserved Armenian spirit and pride in young people through fraternity, education, political action and athletics. While there have always been adult advisors, the AYF has always been youth-led and managed. This gave our young people the experience and confidence to develop into community leaders that is a true AYF legacy.
The centerpiece of AYF athletics has been the annual Olympic Games that take place every Labor Day weekend. Every year, we gather in a different city to create our own Armenia for four days. What started as a gathering of AYF-ers has evolved and become a reunion of AYF families. We all watch the youth compete in golf, tennis, swimming, softball, and track & field. In the evenings, we gather for the dances which go to the wee hours of the morning. All the while, we break bread with old friends, refresh acquaintances, and make new friends. It is a wonderful and enduring event.
Stepan Piligian, an AYF alum and columnist for The Armenian Weekly, penned a piece that was posted on April 11, Calling All Baby Boomer Armenians and Their Kids.
In this article, he wondered what happened to his contemporaries that he grew up with from both church and the AYF. Stepan encouraged the baby boomer generation to re-engage with the church and noted that “…it is never too late to come back to the church.”
We offer an additional approach for Baby Boomers to re-engage with our Armenian culture and heritage: Come to the Olympic weekend this year in Chicago! Bring your children and grandchildren. Call your friends, even if you haven’t seen them in years, to join you. Make it a grand AYF Reunion. Come and renew yourself in the fraternalism and warmth that is the AYF Olympics. Come partake in alumni golf. On Sunday, listen and dance to the music of Onnik and Hachig, as well as the other weekend performers, who will take you back to the Olympic Dances.
You will not want to miss the excitement of AYF softball on Saturday afternoon. The crown jewel of the weekend will be the track & field events on Sunday. Be there to watch the march of the athletes at the opening ceremony, and be impressed by the enduring strength of the organization you loved so much in your youth.
Looking Back on the AYF Olympics:
There is a wonderful history that has occasionally appeared in the Olympic Ad Books and was included in the 2018 Philadelphia book. The nine-page article, An AYF Olympic 75-Year Chronology, was written by AYF luminaries James Tashjian, Margaret Stepanian, Harry Derderian, Tom Vartabedian, and Bob Tutunjian.
The Armenian Youth Federation was established in 1933 under the auspices of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation and the inspiration of the great Armenian military leader Karekin Njdeh. The first convention was held in Brockton, MA on June 1 – 3 in 1934. There were 44 delegates in attendance from the Armenian population centers in New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and the Mid-West. The convention established the first by-laws of the organization.
They elected a Central Executive. They adopted a resolution in that first convention “which bound the organization to a policy of annual ‘track and field games’ in which AYF Chapters, through their athletes would vie for ‘Olympic’ honors.” As James Tashjian wrote of that first AYF Olympics:
Modesty itself was the theme of the first annual Olympic Games. Athletes at that meet competed in surrounds that were completely contrary to those which we enjoy today in many of the finer athletic stadiums. No imposing stands circumvented the unbroken greensward of secluded little Walker’s Field in Brockton, MA. The dash-men ran through lanes chalked out over the sod, while the jumpers risked life and limb in pits that had been dug out of earth and improperly prepared.
Worcester took the honors in those first AYF Olympic Games with 38 points. They took first in every event which is feat never seen again in the AYF Olympics. In each year since then, the winning point totals have increased as the number of events also increased. Over the years, swimming, tennis, and golf have been included. At the 1962 Games in Boston, Providence was the first chapter to break the 100-point mark. Detroit was the first team to break the 200-point barrier in the 1978 New Jersey games. In the early years, all of the games were held in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island.
In 1947, the games were held in New York City. The ’48 – ’50 games were held in Syracuse, Philadelphia, and Detroit respectively. In the 1970s, the Olympics were held twice in Canada, 1970 in Montreal and 1974 in Toronto, and in 1972 in Los Angeles. 2019 marks the fifth time Chicago will host the games. They did so previously in 1991, 1998, 2004 in which they were also the winners, and 2011.
From 1941 – 1997, Providence dominated the AYF Olympics. The Big Green Machine won 28 of the 36 Olympics in that time span. Since then Boston/Great Boston, Philadelphia, and Detroit have stepped up and made things more competitive. Providence has 40 Championships, Detroit has 15, and Philadelphia has 6. To honor alumni and legacy, the AYF started naming Olympics the wonderful tradition of naming
To quote an AYF Olympic reporting mentor, Tom Vartabedian (Olympic King 2001):
Take a trip down memory lane and regale in nostalgia. This is the stuff of which sentiment is made. Put yourself back into history, yet look to the future. Without the past, there is no presence. And above all, take pride in belonging to such an eminent organization as the AYF. Come and join the festivities and competition in Chicago this year. Be part of that next chapter in the history of the AYF Olympics. We look forward to seeing you.