Back to basics for the 2004 Games

Back in the good old days – say, a year or two ago – one of the many headaches then afflicting the Athens 2004 preparatory effort was how to secure around 18,000 high-standard hotel rooms in a city and environs already famous for its tourism, in order to make all the honored guests of the Olympic family feel comfortable during their stay for the Games. The issue was brought up again and again and the total was chipped away at until, one happy day late last year, the problem was finally resolved with the securing, for Olympics use, of the services of 11 cruise ships, including the sparkling new Queen Mary II, which will be the pride of Piraeus for a few weeks in August 2004. Now, having ambled up that and other grassy foothills, the organizers find themselves staring up the chill north face of K2, with gloves that suddenly feel a little thin, ropes that look a little worn and crampons that seem a little dull around the edges. A comfortable warmup having been achieved, survival mode suddenly is kicking in, something forced into our collective attention this week with the tragic loss of the Columbia space shuttle. Questions of political survival in the rough-and-tumble world of budgetary battles, even of physical survival in the messy world we live in, have reasserted themselves in the Olympics debate amid struggling economies and war clouds gathering over the Middle East. One could well ask, «Who cares about the Olympics in the middle of all this?» but the organizers and government don’t have much choice but to care, very much, about it. Neither do other countries concerned about the safety of their national contingents in Athens. The Games and their preparations are growing bigger than any of us. Mountaineers at odds And the dynamics have also changed; thousands of details await resolution but have been dwarfed by the twin peaks of defense and budget concerns. And these two are chained to each other, given that Athens must spend hundreds of millions of euros to protect the all the athletes and delegations (not to mention other visitors) for a few weeks in summer 2004. Mounting concerns have focused attention on the essentials; in many ways it really does boil down to security and money, and it’s not just Greece’s concern. Huge and still unresolved issues face the government as well as Athens 2004 – which, we were pointedly reminded again this week, is a wholly separate, non-governmental body run with different premises, funds and people – that involve some delicate balancing acts within some brutal realities, heralded by a reported Games shortfall of over 700 million euros. In the one (budget) case, it seems that one distinction has been overlooked up to now – responsibility for covering expenditures above and beyond those initially accounted for. Both parties were fingered for mangling rather than neatly slicing up the pie of financial responsibility relating to additional expenses or «overlays,» that is, fixing up the stadiums for events. In the other case (security), long delays in tying up a contractor has led to outsiders (in this case, the US government) taking matters into their own hands by setting up their own separate arrangements for athletes’ protection in Athens. Pennies from heaven The budget issue, which involves not one but a thousand different matters and which seemed settled only recently, suddenly became muddled. Officials haven’t always helped; just weeks ago Jacques Rogge, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) president, told an Athens audience that the organizers have their own totally separate budget of nearly 2 billion euros, and being a revenue-generated outfit (much of it from the IOC itself) is «not going to cost anything to the government or to the taxpayers.» This doesn’t jive with long-published figures that show the government having a small but still considerable, 14 percent coverage of Athens 2004 expenses, which would represent about 270 million euros and would thus give the State some reason for concern. The government’s much larger budget, dominated by infrastructure projects, currently stands at 4.6 billion euros. The government, fighting its own budgetary corner as a eurozone member and now in the spotlight as EU president, is anxious to keep to its commitment under the bloc’s Stability Pact. In other words, it’s counting its pennies like never before – especially as it has already taken out a European loan for Olympics-related expenses. It was always going to come to this. And as the best defense is a good offense, the government is now on Athens 2004’s case to account for its supposedly spendthrift ways and apparently wants to check into Athens 2004’s books. A Projects Supervisory Team and several committees already have authority to look into the overall spending, and now a three-person committee will be set up to monitor expenses across the board. Any more supervision could look more like political meddling than independent auditing. The government wants the organizers to pay for things that won’t impart value for the country after the Games, including items like electricity use during the Games – 20,000 journalists won’t be happy if they have to write in longhand by candlelight and send their dispatches by snail mail. It is difficult to know what will be useful to Greece after the Games (or even to determine «value» at all), for if things get so tight that Athens 2004 simply can’t cover a vital expense, it is Greece’s reputation that will suffer. Athens 2004 will disappear as an organization soon after the Games, but the country, its governments and its image will live on. Some sharing of this burden seemed the only reasonable solution, and sure enough, in a midweek show of amity after a meeting between Prime Minister Simitis and Athens 2004 President Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, a compromise seemed in the offing, but one that will need continual vigilance. At some stage, playing a game of «who blinks first» will grow tiresome. Defense of the realm A second defensive battle is also being waged, over Games security. In this case, the government has come under growing criticism for its inability to wrap up a suitable deal on a defense contractor to fit out the Games’s huge security needs. Recently, it voided a tender for the Games because the two main consortia angling for the prize, both of them awkwardly cross-national, were asking much more than the desired ceiling of $280 million. The process – having skirted a basic principle of competition by having two rather than three competitors – now involves trying to cajole the two into working together. So even Olympics security is boiling down largely to questions of economy, but the ramifications will be felt for decades. Meanwhile, the US government is not taking any chances, earmarking a reported $4.5 million for the special protection of around 600 American athletes and 200 more coaches and administrators expected at Athens. All this may raise Greek hackles, but the inevitable response would be, why worry about historical sensitivities when we’ve got innocent athletes’ lives potentially at risk? The US Olympic Committee, representing the team, agreed with – if not encouraged – this arrangement, while also expressing «total satisfaction» with preparations for 2004 during a visit to Athens (their seventh) this week. Perhaps there is a good reason they are such frequent visitors; Olympics governance at home isn’t going too well. Right during their visit, the president of the USOC (a voluntary position), Marty Mankamyer – just elected in August – was forced out under an ethical cloud. She was the third to resign, and the second in the past nine months alone; her predecessor, Sandra Baldwin, was elbowed out last spring after having lied on her resume. Still another figure, Chief Executive Lloyd Ward, has himself been investigated recently for ethical lapses relating to a preferential contract involving his brother (and Mankamyer’s sin involved demanding a cut from the sale of some real estate to Ward – even while he was locked in a power struggle with Mankamyer, a real-estate agent in real life). There’s nothing like moral- and morale-boosting volunteer work to warm the heart, is there? It’s an interesting sight, here at the crossroads of the big world and little Greece: Athens 2004, caught out on the question of defense contracting yet dependent on it, must be silently fuming; the IOC is surely chewing its fingernails; the government is pinching pennies (not always by choice) and giving ulcers to others; the US government is trying to rescue the damsels before they get into distress – and no one is worried any more about hotel rooms.

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