Bad economies, SARS, security alerts: Real-world concerns weigh on 2004

It all sounds rather daunting and diversionary, if not downright depressing. A global health scare in the SARS outbreak, a growing dollar crisis and possible European recession, and heightened security alerts have all simultaneously reared their heads to do away with any hopes for some postwar international peace of mind. All these problems could throw potential wrenches into the 2004 Olympics – and their combination will certainly keep their planners on edge until then. How these and other concerns play out until next August is anybody’s guess, but the Games are now close enough that such potential concerns suddenly become tangible problems. It is getting to the point where potential visitors will soon start making summer plans for a year hence, and they will certainly factor these issues in. A European economic downturn, combined with a dive in the dollar, is about the last thing that the Athens 2004 organizers need, having just launched their big ticket sales drive. And a global health scare, not to mention the possibility of hijacked airplanes, spooks everybody thinking of traveling anywhere at all. Fighting a headwind Clearly, the world Games are being affected, as they always have been, by wider world events. And it’s a time of active, or at least very public, diplomacy, partly by Olympics officials scrambling to counter or minimize the fallout. EU Commission Vice President Loyola de Palacio paid a visit to Athens 2004 and emphasized the EU’s proprietary interest in it all. Meanwhile, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is juggling its own diplomatic balls: liaising day to day with the World Health Organization over the SARS crisis in China (which has already canceled many visits and events there, sporting and other, as well as the World Badminton Championships earlier this year), announcing it «strongly condemns» horrendous acts by Iraq against its own Olympic athletes, and even talking up a joint proposal to get sports mentioned in a new European Union Constitution – which will be discussed at the EU summit in Thessaloniki next month which brings Greece’s EU presidency to a close. For all its protestations about being a non-political organization, the IOC is definitely intertwined in world affairs. The IOC is also saving for a rainy day now that the clouds have gathered, retaining some 11 percent of its forecast 2002 budget and increasing its revenues just in case a future Olympic Games is canceled (which hasn’t happened since 1944). No mention was made of any Games in particular, but surely Beijing 2008 is foremost in mind. At least that burden – or the specter of removal elsewhere – is finally off the Athens Games, which were touch-and-go three years ago. And next month the TV rights in the US for (at least) the 2010 and 2012 Games – whose locations haven’t even been decided yet – will be finalized in a sealed-bid competition – within a day, they think, for a contract worth around $2 billion. Why is it that small things always seem to drag out endlessly, while really big ones get resolved over lunch? These potential international repercussions on upcoming Olympiads are also underscored in the nefarious world of doping. The impending opening of the doping control center for the Athens Games comes right on the heels of allegations in the US that many of its star athletes, including nine-time gold medalist Carl Lewis, failed drug tests in the 1980s yet were allowed to compete in the Olympics on the US team. The IOC, which has made cracking down on drugs a big priority, cannot have been too pleased with this, and the IOC Executive Board «invited» the general counsel of the US Olympic Committee to cough up some details. Stiff upper lips Yet the Athens organizers are putting on a brave face, with the president of the committee, Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, giving a robust progress report to the IOC in Madrid, declaring that every venue is now under construction (including even the endlessly delayed Karaiskaki Stadium), announcing the start of ticket sales and providing the sound bite of the week: «Now is a time for confidence.» With other progress going as well, such as the finalization of venue operational plans, she has some factual basis for such claims, as they no longer sound like plaintive appeals. The IOC’s response was sketchily reported, but seemed very positive. Executive Director Gilbert Felli even praised the (also long-delayed) security arrangements, saying he was «confident and happy» with progress. This was almost astonishing to hear in light of the major embarrassment of previous months, where the security contract has been held up repeatedly, adding to the government’s domestic woes. Queuing up What has occurred is a real turning of the tables. Ever since 1997, when Athens was awarded the 2004 Games, the main problem areas cited were almost invariably domestic in nature. Whether it was bad organization at the beginning, legal delays and tardy construction later on, or even the possibility of violent disruption, everyone seemed to assume that the risks lay with Greece itself, not that any outside shocks might occur. But what these past few weeks have shown is that the Games’ success is really hinged to a great extent on what happens in the rest of the world. With all this breathless flurry of activity, it came almost as a relief to read that also more humble progress was also being made – toward table tennis preparations for Athens 2004. But you never know with sport. After all, athletic exchanges in the form of «ping-pong diplomacy» led to the East-West rapprochement and the West’s opening to China in the early 1970s. Who would have thought? Despite this catalogue of potential nightmares hanging over both Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008, a strikingly long queue of major cities will be battling it out until 2005 for the right to host the 2012 Games. This week alone, both London and Paris have tabled bids (with government support); New York is already the US choice and Madrid Spain’s, while other cities like Moscow and Rio de Janeiro are also expected to pitch their hats into the ring. Both London and Paris have hosted Games twice before, but not in the past half-century, and offer tantalizing possibilities of rowing races on the Thames and beach volleyball at (thankfully, not on) the Eiffel Tower. Only Germany, which opted for Leipzig, in former East Germany, over bigger cities like Hamburg and Berlin, has chosen a seemingly off-the-wall candidate city – unless you count Havana, which is apparently to try as well. There are absolutely no reports of Athens bidding again for 2012; anybody trying to do that at this point would be pitched headfirst into the Saronic Gulf, fully clothed. Why all the interest? The answer is, of course, economic. Making the initial bid is a crapshoot, but winning organizing committees can now rely on outside guidance as well as funding, from TV revenues and the IOC and sponsorships, while hoping for lots of new investment and tourist inflows. The economic risk is a lot less, especially for bigger countries – even as the risks from everything else seem to be escalating. It’s just another paradox in the strange world of 2003.

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