An Olympiad of myriad concerns

For one brief, shining moment last month, it seemed the sporting side of the Athens Olympics was finally going to break through the crusty overlay of public issues weighing on the preparations. The seven test events may not have been perfect, but things got better as they went along, and some went swimmingly (even, unfortunately, for some of the rowers who got dunked in the lake). Entering the final year, it seemed that priorities were finally reasserting themselves – and more events are on tap for next month. But a well-known heavyweight triad – economics, domestic politics, and international security concerns – remains spread-eagled over 2004, overshadowing the archers, show-jumpers and beach volleyballers that lately claimed the mantle of attention. And the three issues are all tangled up together: Games costs have become a bigger issue because of the pre-election spending spree the government just launched. Final preparations will overlap on a Greek election campaign, comments about which landed the International Olympic Committee’s main overseer, Denis Oswald, in yet more hot water in Athens. And security issues are not going away, period. Other nations continue to fret about the safety of their teams next year, while the big «Olympics» news of the week – which surely set hearts everywhere aflutter – was an agreement to open five new air corridors over the Aegean that will facilitate Games traffic. But even that breakthrough proved a political hot potato in Athens. None of these issues figures in the always upbeat websites of either Athens 2004 or the IOC, currently raving about the 110,000 volunteer applications that some unfortunate department will now have to vet. But they pound the daily media headlines in Greece and prove, once again, how an Olympics in Greece can never be apolitical. And it shows how thin the line is between national sovereignty and international involvement with the Games. Invisible, really; which leads some to insist on a sharp demarcation, however artificial. Mind yer business Election season is well and truly under way. The government itself fated its overlap with the final-year Games preparations (and any related fallout) in early 2000 when it called for early polls, before the IOC first warned Greece about the dire state of Olympics progress. Now the IOC is worried about the impact of an election campaign on preparations, which is hardly surprising. It worries about everything that could impact on the tight-as-a-drum timetable. So when Oswald made his comments to the German press last week about the potential electoral impact on 2004, he was simply expressing an evident reality. Big mistake. Government officials jumped all over him for meddling in Greek politics, for overstepping his boundaries, and for double-dealing (given his penchant for sounding more positive about the preparations within than outside Greece). Oswald likely doesn’t give a hoot about which party runs Greece. But as these are to be «unique Games on a human scale,» he is wondering whether he will be staring at a whole new set of faces come May 2004. He opined that they could well change no matter who wins, which is hardly meddling and probably correct. His error, it seems, was to voice those worries in public. But in turn his detractors extrapolated his comments widely, indeed wildly, out of context, no doubt making him rue opening his mouth at all. And excess sensitivity doesn’t stop at political boundaries. Bills to pay The elections have also created a new economic reality for Greece, and given that the Games are currently its biggest expense, they have created a new economic reality for 2004 as well. Officials claim that the 2.6-billion-euro handout programs now being touted will have no impact on the already-budgeted Games infrastructure. Maybe not, but the sum total will add, significantly, to Greece’s growing debt burden in the future. For most of its term in office, the Simitis government has said that containment of costs and a lowering of the national debt was a key goal. With the incipient election campaign and the hunt for votes, this aim has veered off course. And Games costs will inevitably rise next year, not just from inflation but from last-minute exigencies. In short, it is particularly unfortunate timing. Will the national debt and recent progress now be scattered to the winds? Greece has upheld, stubbornly and even admirably, a strict interpretation of the EU’s Stability Pact, which limits deficits to 3 percent of GDP and tries to restrain spending. Its (public) fidelity has contrasted with France and Germany, who have pronounced themselves above those nominal strictures. Such blitheness led Swedish voters to resoundingly reject euro membership last Sunday. Yet Greece’s actions – more discretionary spending plus Olympic Games expenses that are destined to grow – may indicate a de facto inability to meet the Stability Pact next year either, however much Economy Minister Nikos Christodoulakis claims otherwise. Something has to give, and that will probably be any semblance of fiscal balance. Have no doubt about it: This will affect Greek public finances and Greek public life for the rest of the decade. The bills will come due, and will compel reforms. Keeping safe A third issue, also touching on touchy matters of sovereignty, has been the flap about other countries bringing their own security contingents to protect their teams. Athens 2004, the organizers, and the government are preparing the biggest Olympic security operation ever, but this doesn’t placate other countries nervously contemplating the first Summer Games in the post-9/11 world. Both the USA and Australia, and perhaps others as well, are either bringing or thinking of bringing their own security personnel. The Greek government understandably frowns on too much of this sort of planning, and insists that all teams will be fully protected by the comprehensive Games security plan and subject to Greek law while on Greek territory. At first, spokesman Christos Protopappas claimed that any accompanying security guards would merely be «tourists,» here on «a little trip to see the Games,» which is probably not what the Australian and American governments had in mind. Subsequently, officials admitted that foreign security personnel can come in that capacity, but still insisted they not be armed. One has to wonder what they will be carrying instead. Perhaps the British contingent, if they bring some bobbies, bear-fur hats and all, can distribute billy sticks to all the unarmed guards. That’ll scare the biological bombsters, for sure. It is, again, a very thin line. Of course Greek law prevails on its territory; but at the same time, the entire security plan was the creation of seven countries working together for a world event that is rotating, for 2004, to Greek soil. Shouting about what others can say or do seems like drawing lines in the sand when it comes to the Games themselves, a uniquely international event. But expect such shouting to continue. Bit of inspiration Amidst all the posturing came progress in one area, the Paralympics front, including a remarkable athletic feat that reminds us of something greater. A group of swimmers will swim from Attica to Milos island in relay stages starting tomorrow – 145 kilometers (90 miles), or four times the English Channel distance. And they’re physically disabled. Puts us all to shame, doesn’t it?