The Games, the Greeks, and the world

With a characteristic combination of profundity and brevity, Archbishop Christodoulos this week put his finger on the importance of the Olympics for modern Greece. During a meeting with Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, head of the organizing committee Athens 2004 (ATHOC), he indicated that they would be an opportunity to show the world that Greece is more than just beaches and tzatziki. That is indeed good news, if not exactly news; and the need to dispense with cliches is pretty much applicable to any host country. No doubt Beijing will take the opportunity in 2008 to show the world that Chinese culture consists of more than chop suey and the Great Wall. Globalization involves the dissemination of information, but it doesn’t necessarily overcome prevailing myths and misconceptions about countries as fast as it spreads Microsoft Windows, international trade and bad English. Unfortunately, a wiser and more knowledgeable world is not the inevitable consequence of globalization, even if you accept that the process is fundamentally dynamic and benevolent. Greece is subject to plenty of such false impressions – perhaps because it is relatively small and less often in the news, or full of passionate people who keep their own counsel, or has a history of being pushed around the geopolitical chessboard – and some undoubtedly have been self-generated. The chance to dispel such misconceptions and to say, These are Greece’s Olympics, let’s show everyone what we can do, is one reason why the Olympics – which themselves embody a global movement – mean so much to the country. They are not just an opening onto the world stage but the chance to both direct and star in the production. As such, they offer a unique opportunity to display the richness of the nation’s culture, its authentic face; but doing so will involve presenting a good impression as well. Paradoxically, some artifice will have to be employed in order to display Greece’s essence as Olympics host. The process of organizing and putting on the Games will mean – already does mean – importing ideas, people and ways of functioning, as well as incorporating these elements into Greece’s existing way of operating. They will be a test of Greece’s international assimilation; of its willingness to accept others’ notions about how to organize and conduct such a massive operation, without compromising its indigenous qualities as a nation. Whether this implies a Faustian bargain or just a bracing dose of contemporary reality depends on your point of view; cultural purists or strong nationalists may be chagrined with having to conform to outsiders’ requirements; others may well find it refreshing. But it is clear that the 2004 Games won’t just reflect prevailing national values and ways of operating. These may be Greece’s Games, but they won’t necessarily be Greek Games. The question then becomes: Will the process bring about long-term change, or will it prove ephemeral, a temporary diversion from the normal state of affairs, after which the exhausted nation goes back to the old ways of doing things? It’s about far, far more than sports. It’s really about a way of life, in which the Games themselves are just the vehicle and vanguard for testing old and new notions about how society should operate; and there are no easy answers. Imports and traditions For all their ancient Greek connotations, the modern Olympics aren’t all that reflective of modern Greece. Greeks love their sports, but it is not a particularly athletic-minded country in terms of citizen participation; organizing mammoth events isn’t a normal task here either, nor is doing so in close conjunction with others, who sometimes insist on their own way. Generalized notions like democratic participation and an openness to outside influences are, of course, shared; but focusing on participatory or internationalist notions is only part of the story. Elements of spirit have to be counterbalanced with the mundane. The most willing spirit in the world can’t pour concrete and finish promised venues; it can’t house hundreds of thousands of extra visitors, or organize 60,000 volunteers, or run a sophisticated computerized operation, or coordinate a huge security operation. Within the coming week, in fact, both aspects will be highlighted; on Monday the flame will be lit in ancient Olympia for the Salt Lake City Winter Games, while after that Greece will be scrutinized and possibly excoriated by the IOC’s Coordination Commission for letting the material side of things slide. Not for the first time, the world community will be playing good cop / bad cop for Greece. The dichotomies mentioned – between the spirit and the material, between foreign expectations and Greek realities – has a domestic organizational side too. A nominally Socialist government is building the venues in a public sector-dominated effort, with all the elements that we have come to know and love, like delays and inflated optimism about deadlines. But the organizers at ATHOC appear to be attempting something new for Greece; running a national undertaking on the basis of private sector and largely non-Greek principles, relying (in theory, at any rate) on things like initiative, hard work, meritocracy, a keen awareness of public relations, and political independence. Here we have a real clash of civilizations, telescoped into the Greek national context and manifested in divergent work values and organizational processes. It is difficult to know how well most Greeks see this yawning dichotomy in the organizational side of the Games, or how neatly it represents the crossroads at which Greece now finds itself. But they certainly do see its personification in Culture Minister Venizelos and ATHOC head Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, who appear almost like two Greco-Roman wrestlers circling the mat and warily sizing each other up. Temporary or permanent effect? That the Games will involve a huge and multifaceted operation that draws on ideas and people from abroad is not at issue. They are a test of Greece’s ability to borrow ideas from elsewhere and assimilate them into its own reality. The question is: Will their effect prove to be fleeting and temporary, dictated by an outside organization (the International Olympic Committee) and foreign governments scared stiff of terrorism, and reflecting the one-off nature of hosting the Games? Or will there be a spillover effect, with some of the lessons rubbing off on the broader society, so that the country, surprised that it could (in the end) surpass itself by putting together this superhuman effort, opts to learn from and apply the new principles more widely? If the former, it will leave Greece exhausted and indebted, even if it gains a lot more shrubbery and sports facilities. If the latter, it will leave modern Greece in the more internationally competitive situation that both major parties say they seek. Organizing the Games will be an interesting test as to whether the stated aspirations have genuine meaning behind them, and whether this unprecedented event will leave an imprint on Greece’s organizational and work attitudes, and not just on the physical look of the host city. The whole operation, in fact, is a little like an old-fashioned wedding, which involves a lot of preparation, planning and expense, relies largely on faith, but will mean little without the guests. And the Greek bride is faithfully following Western custom by wearing something old (state-run infrastructure projects), something new (imported organizational culture), something borrowed (IOC expertise) and something blue (clashes between ATHOC and the government). Let’s hope she’s not left standing at the altar – especially with the archbishop himself offering his services.

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