2004 Olympics: National cause or hot potato?

“What a waste of effort! Why did you bring this all the way up? As if we are going to do anything with it,» the general secretary for public works at the Ministry of Environment scolded the officials from the Athens Town Plan Organization who had just carried a heavy plan of the proposed changes to the seaside area between Piraeus and Faliron up several flights of stairs to his office. The plan, part of which has now been implemented, with a further part left to be completed after the Olympic Games, was the result of a collaboration among several Greek and foreign architects, including some heavyweights in their profession. This episode took place in early 2000, just a couple of months before Juan Antonio Samaranch, then president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), figuratively showed the government and the Olympics organizers a yellow card, warning that if the pace of preparations did not pick up, Athens risked the ultimate humiliation of having the 2004 Games taken away from it and reassigned to another city. The incident was typical of the way the administration, from Prime Minister Costas Simitis to middle-ranking state officials, viewed the Olympics, at least initially, and perhaps even after they buckled up in response to Samaranch’s threats. The official line was that the Olympics were a special challenge which the whole nation had to rise to, showing that it had become modern enough to reclaim a tradition rooted in Ancient Greece. Privately, and with very few exceptions, officials felt it was an expensive nuisance. The definitive story of how Athens bid for the XXVIIIth Summer Olympiad, succeeded in getting it and prepared for it, still remains to be written. Perhaps it never will be written, because too many skeletons are deeply buried in some cupboards: the intra-government feuds, the feuds between the government and the organizers, the secret negotiations with contractors and, of course, the way in which the IOC members were persuaded to vote for Athens. For the time, we have to be satisfied with a partial account: That provided by journalist Tassos Telloglou in his book, «The City of the Games» (Hestia Publishers, in Greek), is the best available. Telloglou’s story of how Athens got the Games in 1997, the «three wasted years» and Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki’s triumphant comeback after Samaranch’s yellow card take up less than half of the book (excluding the appendices). The rest is devoted to the planning and building decisions that affected the Olympic Village, the suburb of Maroussi, host of the main Olympic complex, the metropolis’s seaside front and the city of Athens itself. Although it omits some episodes widely reported in the press, the book provides enough information, especially in the latter chapters, to establish itself as a useful source. With a few exceptions, it avoids taking sides on passionate debates about the utility of certain projects, a detachment rare in a book by a Greek reporter. It recounts a story of missed opportunities and bungled deadlines, the result of inexperience in dealing with a project of such magnitude. It also tells of the spiraling costs, sometimes the result of delays, sometimes imposed by courts which, in the case of the Olympic Village, inflated land prices sevenfold. But, above all, it describes a culture where the law is in turns flouted by everyone and is excessively resorted to when suitable. A small example of the latter case: The organization for the Unification of the Archaeological Sites of Athens faced 360 lawsuits, none of which it lost, while taking down 3,000 of the 8,500 advertising boards littering the city. In Barcelona, 9,000 such boards were removed before the 1992 Olympics without a single lawsuit, or legal action by the authorities.