Olympics: The dangers of a lost opportunity

The modern Olympic Games are a brand name that belongs to the International Olympic Committee (IOC). They are also the biggest event staged globally in terms of participants and logistics. Greece staged Olympic Games in antiquity and helped to revive the idea in modern times, first by hosting the inaugural modern Games in 1896 and then, with the unofficial Olympics of 1906, putting back on track a competition that threatened to degenerate into a sideshow at some industrial exhibition, as it did in Paris in 1900, and in St Louis, in 1904. History has left Greeks with a proprietary attitude toward the Olympics and with the belief that the Games must somehow return to a more «human» scale. This obsolete ideology was behind the naive proposal by then Prime Minister Constantine Karamanlis, back in the 1970s, to stage the Games permanently in Greece. The IOC, just awakening to the financial potential of the Games – indeed, the turning point came at an IOC session in 1978, when the 1984 Games were awarded to the only bidder, Los Angeles – wisely gave short shrift to the idea. The proprietary attitude handicapped Greece’s candidacy to stage the 1996 Games. The bidding committee took the highhanded attitude that the Centennial Games «belong to us» and vowed that Athens would never bid again after «Coca-Cola defeated the Parthenon» in the words of the late Melina Mercouri in 1990. Athens’s second, and ultimately successful, bid was more realistic in terms of expectations and profited by Atlanta’s bungling of the Games. However, once it got the Olympics, in September 1997, it became evident that the government had very little idea about the effort involved in preparing for and staging the Games. There was some vague awareness of the economic benefits, but little else. Prime Minister Costas Simitis was absorbed in the quest to join the European Monetary Union and paid scant attention to the preparations of the Games until May 2000, when a stern warning by then IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch jolted him, and his government, out of their complacency. By that time, it became evident that building the required infrastructure would be a tight race to the finish, all the way to summer 2004. Tighter schedules led to soaring costs. And, although the opportunity to profit from the Games is still there, the prevailing talk now is one of opportunities lost. Perhaps Andreas Loverdos, the deputy foreign minister in charge of international economic relations, is right. Speaking yesterday at a conference on «The Aftermath of the Olympic Games 2004: Greece at the Crossroads,» he said that, now that we are still at the preparatory stage, we see little of the benefits and a lot of the problems associated with preparations. In this climate, he says, criticism thrives: «Sometimes, (criticism) is justified, sometimes it is illogical and other times it is made with malicious intent,» he said. Athens’s approach to the Olympic Games looks downright haphazard when compared to that of Barcelona, the city that staged the Games in 1992. As Joan Clos, the current mayor of the city says, Barcelona bid for the Games for one reason only (other than the fact that it was Samaranch’s hometown) – to get out of a dreadful recession and bolster development. In 1982, four years before it was awarded the Games, the city had reached what Clos named «the dreadful 22-22 level,» that is, 22 percent inflation and 22 percent unemployment. The town’s seafront was a bleak area of abandoned industries and warehouses. Barcelona spent $8 billion on infrastructure. In staging the Games, it followed a five-point strategy: First, it developed a strategic plan in cooperation with over 300 local bodies, including unions, employers, universities, local associations, etc. Second, it built a ring road around the city; third, it built the Olympic Village right on the seafront in place of the old, closed factories; fourth, it built a larger airport, whose traffic has tripled since the Olympics, to 22 million passengers annually; fifth, it passed a law ending the monopoly of local hoteliers and doubled the city’s capacity in three-, four- and five-star hotels. With the exception of the last step – where the government’s intention to expand Athens’s hotel capacity fell victim to the hoteliers’ strong reaction and to the government’s tardiness in passing the measure (in 2001) – it looks as if Athens has proceeded in a manner similar to Barcelona’s. There are two important differences: first, the timetable; and second, that the overall plan had been formulated years in advance and not built along the way and under the pressure of deadlines. In this respect, the government is guilty of incredible shortsightedness back in 1996-97, when the bid was put through. The important question, however, is the legacy the Games will leave in the economy. Is the country ready to take advantage of such an opportunity? Most speakers at yesterday’s conference said that things will be better after the Games but that full advantage will not be taken of them. Opinions ranged from government officials’ optimism to the assessment of opposition leader Costas Karamanlis and shadow Finance Minister Giorgos Alogoskoufis that everything now is bleak but not to worry because our party is going to win the next general elections and everything will be OK. Both speakers, and especially Karamanlis, missed the opportunity to convince the international audience that they have a strategy and a vision, speaking instead as if they were addressing a gathering of the party faithful. Yiannis Papathanassiou, a New Democracy MP and a former president of the Athens Chamber of Commerce and Industry, presented a more nuanced criticism. He said that Greece’s approach to the Games was characteristic of the approach to the economy as a whole, taking things as they come. Whether the economy takes advantage of the Games, he said, depends on whether the government is willing to abandon what he termed the «prevailing model of a subsidized economy» and embrace the model of «self-generating development» by reducing the intervention of the State and letting enterprises thrive. The State, Papathanassiou said, must confine itself to making the rules of competition respected and taking care of the welfare of the needy. It must also invest heavily in education, because, as he said, Greece will never have the advantage of low labor costs. In this, he concurred with European Employment and Social Affairs Commissioner Anna Diamantopoulou, who said that the Games provided a unique opportunity to create specialized managers. Papathanassiou also called for «a simpler taxation system,» better legislation on bankruptcies and a speedier judicial system. «Abroad, a bankrupt businessman is given a second chance. Here, we make sure he never rises to his feet again,» he said. Unless, then, the State changes its attitude to business, Greece will not be able to maximize its benefits from the Olympics. This would be the greatest opportunity lost.