Coming in 2002: The great push?

Uncharacteristically, it rained heavily on the Athens Marathon last Sunday. Mind you, not that many people noticed, other than the runners gutting it out with bottomless hearts and their faithful (and hardly less soaked) supporting casts, and the many thousands of angry drivers who were diverted from Mesogeion Avenue down tiny streets downtown by shoulder-shrugging traffic cops doing unwanted overtime. It all made for a less-than-ideal Sunday for most, whether they were involved in, or oblivious to, the event. And it was a fitting end point, if not exactly high point, to a year in which, at least in terms of the preparations for the Athens Olympics, lots of things happened, even while nothing much seemed to happen, however incongruous that might seem. Yearly recaps get to be the norm by the time November rolls around, even though there is much activity still to take place in 2001 – foremost, the flame-lighting ceremony at ancient Olympia (for next February’s Winter Games at Salt Lake City; the Athens Games aren’t THAT close, yet), plus the next, speeded-up visit by the Coordination Commission of the International Olympic Committee, both of which will happen about two weeks from now. Yet even with that flurry of upcoming activity, the year 2001 will likely be thought of, in Olympic terms, as a year of internal politicking rather than linear progress. Might next year be just the reverse? Few things are as fleeting as predictions, but it seems certain that the Olympics will have to be less politicized and more ratcheted up in the national consciousness next year, in order to avoid further embarrassing reprimands, while ensuring that a Games of reasonable technical quality actually takes place. Political juggling as Olympic sport Another oddity of 2001 was that it was a year of near-crisis in which far worse was somehow avoided. This may have been due as much to luck and to pressing external concerns as to what was happening on the ground, and in the boardrooms of the Athens organizers and ministries involved. But just because you got lucky and the casino treated you well last year doesn’t guarantee anything for next year. The famous yellow-card warning by Juan-Antonio Samaranch in April 2000 was not repeated, either by Samaranch or by his replacement from July as IOC president, Jacques Rogge, who expressed confidence in the Greek organizers even in any number of veiled or open criticisms of aspects of the preparations and a dry reference to the looming biggest construction job in the history of Greece. The September 11 attacks on the USA muted criticisms of any sort and focused all attention on security matters. The first visit by the new commission chairman, Denis Oswald, in September was not the ideal time for him to start tossing out barbs and criticisms, so Athens arguably dodged a bullet on that occasion, even if he too was not exactly effusive in his comments. And the impending Winter Olympics means that those Games are the IOC’s overriding concern for the next several months. These factors are much less likely to play in Greece’s favor after February. In addition, numerous rumblings of impending domestic difficulty have occasionally broken through the surface calm. Most recently – just this week, in fact – this involved the head of ATHOC, the organizing committee, Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, asking for what appeared to be an emergency meeting with Prime Minister Costas Simitis, who earlier in the week had reaffirmed the primacy of his culture minister, Evangelos Venizelos, as the government’s point man for the Olympics, even though he’s also the point man for archaeology, art, music, other sports, the Cultural Olympics, and myriad other things. He’s got a lot on his plate, and the prospect of Venizelos throwing his not inconsiderable weight around, even if only politically, was naturally enough taken as a potential threat by Mrs. Daskalaki. Reports that the ATHOC chief had threatened to resign (re-)surfaced too, though naturally, they were only reports, pointed suggestions and hints dropped, while in public all the faces were wreathed in smiles. Such are the ways of politics, and such are the results of an uneasy and uncertain division of authority when it involves two high-profile, smart, and ambitious individuals, each of whom, rightly, wants to leave his (and her) mark on these momentous Games. They’re too shrewd, one hopes, to get caught up in the kind of debilitating, clash of the titans power struggles that all this may suggest, and the prime minister is a master soother of ruffled feathers. Those involved are no fools. Perhaps it’s good that there are no obvious deadbeats or scapegoats heading the Olympics effort; that would make things too easy. Time to move on The trouble is, partly, that the time for internal Olympics wrangling should be long over and done with, and the personnel involved should be in position to rapidly gear up preparations. The operative reality for Athens 2004 still revolves largely around questions of who, rather than what or how (the why was presumably settled long ago). It emerges that the Cabinet shake-up of last week, whereby no less than seven deputy ministers were assigned responsibility for aspects of the Olympics, was more a symptom of past troubles than a ready-made solution for those difficulties. They may eventually help, of course, but the system still has to work itself out. Trouble is, it may already be rather late for some things to get done; in yet another potentially troubling development, the new public works minister, Vasso Papandreou, is said to have announced to people in her ministry that some projects under its jurisdiction will not be able to be completed as designed. Yet even that would-be bombshell still didn’t quite explode, but rather fizzled and spluttered and just sort of went out on its own. Problems are lurking, yet juggling for position and loss of face seem hardly less prioritized than getting the country ready. Musical chairs and political juggling aren’t Olympic sports, though at some point the IOC, from its worried standpoint, might start thinking about music of another variety, that played by Nero on his fiddle. The inevitable response is that Greeks work best when their backs are to the wall, but inaction to reinforce a national trait seems an awkward promotional tool. This past year was the year of stymied progress; one in which the Olympics seemed to be a national priority, yet somehow still weren’t. Next year will require a great leap forward, because the one after that will be pretty much the terminus for most preparations, especially venue-oriented. The prime minister is good on projecting an air of serenity for the country’s populace, but at some point he may have to take the bull by the horns, rather than by the toenails, and drag it out of hibernation. If pulling the lurking tensions out into the open and refereeing a few sparring matches can be a means to genuinely get the projects going, then that would be a pretty reasonable trade-off. Expect more tough words all around – and, just possibly, more progress.

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