A major opportunity missed

Athens is putting on a new face for its Olympic visitors. Many of the city’s facades have been spruced up, street cleaners have appeared in force, brightly colored annuals are appearing in open spaces. With builders putting final touches to the venues, the rubble is being cleared away and an eleventh-hour attempt being made to add some greenery, culminating in a much-publicized planting of flowers this week in the city’s main park, the National Gardens. However, environmental organizations see these last-minute efforts as nothing more than window dressing that will not last longer than the Games themselves, and believe that promises made a few years ago that the Olympics would serve as an incentive to improve the quality of life in the city have been forgotten. A recent WWF report, «Environmental Assessment of the Athens 2004 Olympic Games,» rates the environmental component of the Athens Olympics with a very disappointing score of 0.77 on a scale of 0-4, based on the Sydney 2000 Olympics benchmark for a «clean and green» Games. The lowest scores were given to areas such as environmental planning and evaluation, protection of fragile natural and cultural areas, waste management and water conservation, and the use of environmentally friendly construction technologies. The highest scores went to the fields of public transport, the improvement of existing infrastructure, and the promotion of environmental awareness, but WWF is concerned that these gains may disappear when the Olympic Games come to a close. «Unfortunately, the environment never figured as a priority in the planning of the Athens Olympic Games. While the IOC calls the environment its third pillar of Olympism, it has done very little to keep this from crumbling under the weight of other priorities,» said Dimitris Karavellas, chief executive officer of WWF-Greece. Fragmented responsibility The Athens 2004 organization is not entirely to blame, as it is the State which has responsibility for infrastructure, as well as the Olympic venues and their surroundings. Athens 2004 has supplied plants to municipalities around the Olympic venues to improve the look of neighborhoods where spectators and athletes will be spending most of their time. In the city center, there has been an attempt to brighten up the streets with flowering plants. This week the National Gardens, which are in the process of being transferred to the jurisdiction of the Athens Municipality, were the scene of a planting marathon as the somewhat neglected park acquired 13,000 shrubs, a gift from the municipality. A former environment and public works minister in the previous PASOK government, Costas Laliotis, had promised 100 million plants. His successor, Vasso Papandreou, reduced the plans to 820,000 trees, 14 million shrubs and 415 hectares of ground cover. This, apparently, has been reduced even further. The cover of the latest issue of Kathimerini’s monthly magazine supplement Eco announces that «Olympic greenery» is the «shortest joke» around at the moment, an oxymoron if ever there was one. «The few trees that represent the 100 million Olympic plants announced by former Environment and Public Works Minister Costas Laliotis are struggling to survive without water, and were chosen on the basis of cost (which will be high at this late stage),» wrote Tania Georgiopoulou. «No one had the foresight – after all this is not the job of the engineers who have undertaken the task – to realize that summer is the worst season for transplanting. Yet again we have shown that for us, plants are not living organisms but simply the final brushstrokes in the finishing touches to the Olympic Games projects.» According to Eco, along the marathon route, recently completed after a change of contractor just a few months ago because of long delays, some of the 500 plane trees planted in January 2003 and other shrubs planted in April have already begun to dry out for lack of water, as the irrigation pipes have not been installed. According to Michalis Stogiannos, a horticulturalist and president of the landscape contractors’ union, one of the cost-cutting methods was to leave the excavated material near the sites – now these have to be camouflaged. «There was no provision made for what was to happen with this material,» he said. «The planting that has been done is ‘disposable’, like so much else today, seen as needed only for the duration of the Games,» he added. Around the main Olympic stadium complex, only recently completed with the positioning of the innovative roof designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, newly planted trees have already begun to dry out despite the 400 liters of water used daily, according to a report in Wednesday’s daily Ta Nea, because they have been planted in the wrong kind of soil. As for the Faliron coastline, where there are three stadiums separated by large expanses of soil and rubble from the excavations, small shrubs are being planted on a bare hillock of packed soil. Stogiannos said the original plan for this entire Faliron waterfront included a series of parkland areas within a broader project forming a united whole. «Plants are being used simply to provide decor for the Olympic venues themselves and then only at some of them. Greenery is only a detail, not a priority,» he told Kathimerini English Edition.

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