2004 Games: A Sisyphean challenge

Any major event with a long lead time inevitably has highs and lows. At this point, just a year and a summer away from the opening of the Athens 2004 events – or if you prefer, the «Games of the XXVIIIth Olympiad» – some preparations are cooking away while others still languish on the back burner. The past month, both in its frenetic activity and its Easter lull, has provided a vivid demonstration of the road traveled so far but also of the mountains still to climb. On the upside have been several recent developments that show the preparations are being dragged, slowly but surely, into the realm of accomplishments. After the first test event successfully organized last August, last week we had the first venue handed over to the Games organizers, namely the International Broadcasting Center (IBC), which will be a buzzing electronic city of 10,000 TV and radio announcers and technical people come Games time. Priorities are clearly being kept even if deadlines sometimes aren’t; international broadcasters are, after all, major underwriters of the organizing committee, and take clear preference over even the written media (notably, IBC rights holders will have free access to the next-door Main Press Center during the Games, but not vice versa). Sure enough, their 100-million-euro facility on Kifissias Avenue near the Olympics complex, massive and functional but no artistic masterpiece, was the first to be delivered. However, the legal basis for its building permit was revealed to be as shaky as its massive steel girders are solid. Meanwhile nearby, also in Maroussi, one of the media villages (where journalists will stay) was ruled to have legal problems of its own, throwing a vital facility into sudden doubt. History as test event The clearest indication of the sheer scale of things to come was not even Olympics-related: the EU summit last month. The signing ceremony for the Union’s enlargement, from its current 15 to 25 members (to take effect in May 2004), was one of the biggest-ever gatherings of European leaders. It virtually shut down the city for much of three midweek days – and was then labeled a «warmup» for the Athens Games. You know you’re facing a mammoth event when one of the biggest-ever summits and historical events becomes a mere dress rehearsal for something else. Perhaps this also says something about our own priorities, and short memories: These Games would not even be conceivable were it not for the stability and economic largesse provided by the EU over the last two decades – a timely reminder for today’s «Europe Day,» commemorating the 1950 Schuman Plan that launched what became today’s EU. The summit was primarily a test of security, with its meetings and lodgings scattered all over the city, which caused major thoroughfares to be shut down for whole days and hundreds of thousands of people to be inconvenienced (and have their nerves tested; stories abounded of three-hour, snail-paced trips just to get across town) for reasons that were not always clear. What this logistical nightmare demonstrated was the double-edged nature of a safe Olympics: In order to ensure it you have to trouble everybody. There is no way around this, perhaps, but there is also no use in pretending otherwise. The Games, it became very clear, will be a major inconvenience for Athenians even as they are made convenient for the Olympic family. The hope must then be that residents will cheerfully grin and bear it for those few weeks in August 2004. Another, more unspoken, aspect of the summit was its hidden price tag. Schools were let out, people missed hours of work, civil servants were given a (paid) day’s leave that Wednesday, and most businesses also shut down because of it. One wonders what that all cost the country in purely economic terms and lost output; the amount surely runs into the millions. It was unquestionably a grand ceremony and an historic occasion, but to stage it involved many costs that were blurred. The Olympics will be many times the summit’s duration, and their true economic impact warrants careful scrutiny, not just the bright side, in terms of higher GDP next year or whatever. Its indirect costs – less easily quantifiable than broadcaster contracts or upper-tier ticket prices, to be sure, but surely no less important – will otherwise eventually come as a rude shock. Games on sale Still another complex undertaking is coming into fruition, or at least being launched from blueprint to action. Starting this Monday, a major step toward public involvement will commence as Games tickets officially go on sale. More precisely, a monthlong window of opportunity will open that day for the public to order their ticket preferences, which they can do via the Internet or through outlets of Alpha Bank (suddenly the benefits of sponsorship become evident). Actual, physical tickets will not be mailed out until much later. The procedure being adopted is scrupulous: no free tickets; 3 million seats available to the public, with at least some tickets in every price category available; prices substantially lower than at Sydney; and all Europeans have a shot at securing them. In case an event is oversubscribed, as with the opening or closing ceremonies, a random lottery will be used to determine who the lucky ones are. This is both fair practice and shrewd marketing; by raising the specter of sold-out venues up front, the organizers clearly hope for a mad rush right at the beginning so they don’t have to advertise later on or, worse, to offer discounts for tickets to half-empty arenas. Early and high demand, though, suggest this won’t happen. Out to lunch The best story of the month involved the head of the International Amateur Boxing Association, Anwar Chowdhry of Pakistan, in Athens for talks with the organizers about preparations for this sport. The venue was supposed to be built on the Faliron coastline, but was subsequently moved inland, to Peristeri. The move, he found out in mid-April, was more theoretical than actual, after he reportedly visited the construction site and was surprised to find only a plot of land with no workers around. After his worried inquiries, two bulldozers arrived the very next day to start clearing the area. This quick response was impressive, indeed perhaps too much so. Appearances can sometimes be deceiving, but in this case they were telling, and embarrassing. Rear ends were covered, at least, with a statement by the federation that «everything has been charted» for this sport for 2004. As this visit coincided with Greece’s Easter break, there was no official statement from Athens 2004 regarding this on-site snafu, but only an unrelated one about Athens offering its technical expertise to Beijing for the 2008 Games. It was a new lesson of an old truth; a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. And the 2004 Olympics involve a long, long chain. Who’s brave enough to order tickets for boxing? Keep pushing, Sisyphus.

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