Postmortems from down under

One of the problems of a traveling circus like the Olympic Games, which pops up in a different city every four summers, is that showtime is so intense, and the preparations so drawn out and painstaking that few have any interest or energy in drawing any meaningful retrospectives afterward. «What’s done is done» could just as well be the prevailing view of all, apart from the International Olympic Committee (which got the official Sydney report at last year’s Winter Games) and future host cities. Yet there have been some thoughtful voices in Australia looking back on the 2000 Sydney Games, in order to see if they turned out as people thought they would, determine their long-term impact, and make some early conclusions about whether the effort was worthwhile. Some of the answers might have been expected, but others are surprising – and surprisingly applicable, even to a very different city like Athens. Olympics advocates in Greece can take some solace from the issues that Sydney faced, while opponents can point to them as endemic to a huge public event like the Games. Overviews… One «official» view came from Michael Knight, who was Olympics’ minister for Sydney (a position which, by the way, the Greek government has steadfastly refused to consider creating) and is now a voluntary consultant to Athens 2004, obviously bringing some valuable experience. In a November 2002 article, he noted the need to keep things in perspective, especially prior to the Games, as no one ever knows beforehand how things will actually go; the public relations buildup to Atlanta in 1996 was great and before Sydney lousy, yet the final result was arguably just the opposite. He commented on some unsung successes at Athens already, beyond the usual criticisms of construction delays and the like: the sponsorship program, for example, and the Greek organizers’ clear understanding that they must play to Greece’s advantage, not just emulate what others have done before. He also noted that the current preparations are more athlete-friendly than at Sydney, with an array of training facilities being built right next to the Olympic Village, and better bus-and-driver arrangements from Village to venue than in 2000. And interestingly, he notes that part of the reason for Athens’s construction delays – a complicated approval process and wide appeals procedures – were legally skirted in Sydney. There, the state government of New South Wales (NSW) could pass legislation exempting Olympics projects from normal appeals processes – oiling the wheels of construction, if not of democracy. Greece’s painstaking legal procedures also imply some safeguards for popular recourse, even as they exasperate everybody. … And undertones Attention also gravitated toward the public order side, notably the right to protest during the Games – not necessarily against the Olympics themselves but rather using the world’s temporary focus on them to draw attention to various grievances. It is unlikely that everybody in Athens with a gripe will be immune from the lure of global TV coverage to make a statement (or worse), so how it is handled is an important test. At Sydney, the Aboriginal community provided the most visible forms of protest, notably with its «Aboriginal Tent Embassy,» which the authorities tried but failed to shut down; they had to tread very carefully given the sympathy of many Aussies toward the causes the protesters were espousing. It was a PR coup, too, to pick an Aborigine, Cathy Freeman, to light the Olympic flame, which diffused some of the most acute feelings. Athens, on the other hand, has no such single, readily visible racial minority to focus on, although it has plenty of political passions and issues. Alongside this need to handle possible protests and ensuring they don’t get out of hand, Sydney had an impressive fact sheet put out by the Environmental Defender’s Office, listing exactly which laws were enacted specially for the Games and which were most pertinent to protests. Effectively, no public assembly was permitted in restricted (Games-related) areas without prior authorization from the recognized public authority. Plenty of fines, many on-the-spot, were an option for policemen. The OCA (Olympic Coordination Authority) could also call in the military to deal with genuine threats, with personnel on 24-hour, 10-minute notice at four different sites. Yet at Sydney, despite the inevitable little intrusions (like power of police to search bags on the spot) these restrictions were tempered by other elements. The very fact that such detailed guidelines were freely available to the public was in itself a sort of democratic safeguard. The guidelines indicated that permits to protest were possible to get («You may be pleasantly surprised»), in practice not just in theory, and they dispensed plenty of useful advice for all individuals caught up in the Olympic crowds, not just those planning to unfurl banners and shout slogans, while they also provided contact addresses for free initial legal advice. All this would be a useful public service in Greece by groups apart from the official ombudsman – that is, if their offices are open during the Games. Summing things up A thoughtful, if somewhat fragmentary, October 2001 piece by John Grech looked at the sociopolitical aftereffects of the Sydney Olympics. One major contrast with Athens lies in the post-Games fate of «Stadium Australia,» the huge arena built specially for the Games, which within a year was «on the verge of bankruptcy.» The government of NSW was obliged to step in and rescue this centerpiece of the Olympics complex financially – unlike the famous Sydney Opera House, paid for partly by public lottery and well-funded overall. Athens already had a fully built stadium in place beforehand, so a repeat scenario is mercifully impossible, even if fitting out a new roof (the delayed Calatrava project) and fixing up the Olympic Park is proving far more expensive than first thought. Even Grech, who is rather a Grinch when it comes to the Games (he was one of those who left the city in order to avoid them), points out that, in fact, things really went well during the Games themselves, with crowds happy, crime down and transport actually moving along better than at other times. The IOC even chipped in $200,000 to house the homeless during the Games – though this could be construed as cosmetic, and followed a controversial campaign, as at Atlanta in 1996, to get the indigent off the streets (and parallels the current campaign in Athens to rid downtown streets of stray animals). In the runup to the Games at Sydney, a 10 percent overall consumption tax was levied on all goods and services. Such a move would bring howls of protest in Athens; there will already be such a tax for residents renting their homes out to visitors. And yet, in Sydney, it took nearly a year before the levy began to bite generally – and Grech asserts that «the post-Olympics economic recession that many predicted never materialized.» Can Athens avoid such a letdown as well? He also speculates that the Olympics legislation on public order was a smokescreen for local authorities to implement changes they wanted to impose for years (like the ability to remove people from any part of the city), and the Olympics provided the perfect cover to push them through. He considers the «most sobering lesson» from Sydney to have been the powerful public relations campaign that convinced Sydney residents not only that the Games were good for them, but to give up certain public rights without complaint – not just during those few weeks but potentially for ever – thus «letting the city which is their home slip out of their own hands.» One wonders how similar developments might impact Athens – where it’s hard to say the residents ever had the city IN their hands, but where it’s equally hard to imagine all its vocal locals putting up with such restrictions ad infinitum. Another bright spot apparently also emerged from all the Olympics experience. The modern Olympics apparently gave a fillip to the world’s oldest profession. Already, months before the Games, according to a BBC report, houses of ill repute were already gearing up for a roaring Games trade, with brothels (which were legalized in NSW in 1995, perhaps in preparation for 2000) planning an «advertising blitz in newspapers and on the Internet.» A figure in «one of Australia’s growth industries,» a Madame O’Malley, was cited as building a state-of-the-art facility, including disabled access. With similar renovations all over the city, company hire-outs and cheerful public relations, along with a health campaign, might Sydney’s sex industry provide some valuable lessons for an Olympics economy? Food for thought.