Introducing the touchy-feely Olympics: Officials, organizers take sensitive route

News on the Olympic Games comes fast and furious these days. Some is even related to the actual Games themselves, as opposed to politics, budgets, and the future of life as we know it. And much came in the ping pong-like form of claim and counterclaim. This week there have been reports on the State’s ever-rising Olympics budget, soon to blast past the nominal 4.6 billion figure, long and still bravely proclaimed; on security, with outside reports of planning deficiencies drawing more defensiveness; on animal «care,» with troubling accusations (and denials) regarding thousands of stray animals being put down; and on the Paralympics, with claims (and assumed counterclaims) on improving Athens for the handicapped. There were even a few more «normal» Olympics stories, like the new round of Games tickets (available to the public as of Wednesday), sales of which continue to go briskly, and to the printing of commemorative coins soon for sale to the public. Both are efforts to reap back a little of what Greece is sowing for next year. What to make of it all? The responses were as revealing as the issues themselves. There was a palpable sense of defiance, claims of Greece’s ability to meet the huge challenge: that it will cover all new budgetary demands with minimal (single-digit) rises, according to Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos; that it will provide a safe Olympics, despite troubling reports to the contrary in the Washington Post; and that it will reassign policemen from covering sundry VIPs to doing real police work and busting any new troublemakers that appear – like the self-proclaimed «After-Midnight Slalom» group that emerged this week making arson attacks and denouncing the Olympics as «a whore of multinational companies for doped-up robots.» Who was doped up wasn’t clear. Everybody’s reacting to everybody else. Correct politically A very different sort of reaction was equally in evidence – one involving not tough reactions but soft ones, or rather soft approaches to hard issues. After a meeting last week on the Paralympic Games preparations, the government (through spokesman Telemachos Hytiris) said that «the Paralympics will be a litmus test for our culture and our sensitivity,» and would be as important as the Olympics themselves. But it’s all still in the planning stage. Sounding a similar note on another problem of societal deficiency in Athens, municipal authorities and Athens 2004 organizers both strenuously denied reports of a wave of summertime putdowns of stray dogs when most of the city’s population was away. Animal rights groups have claimed that up to 3,000 strays disappeared for good during the summer holidays, following similar low-season culls at Christmas and before the April EU summit. Not so, say those accused. Serapheim Kotrotsos of the Athens 2004 Organizing Committee said the claims «insult the intelligence of us all» (although the issue is not intelligence but stray animals) and said «no one can deny the interest and sensitivity» of Athens 2004. Athens City Hall similarly rejected the «malicious» rumors, and the officials claim the animals are being sterilized and then rereleased somewhere or other. Regardless of who’s right – and it’s fair to say that both can’t be, but the allegations have been too persistent to dismiss – and with little room for compromise on this highly charged issue, the Olympics preparations are clearly entering a more delicate phase of needing to respond to public needs and concerns, not just gritting it out in the hard work of building venues and installing pipes and wiring. This takes diplomacy, but it also takes doing the right things, like better facilities for the handicapped (or any to speak of) and much better care of Greece’s animal kingdom. The Olympics will be an unlikely but crucial test of progress on these and many other aspects of modern life in the host country. The man in Patras «acquitted» this week of charges of feeding stray dogs (no wonder the courts are so clogged), provided the weakest possible evidence of progress. At least Greece isn’t a society where strays could end up in somebody’s soup pot. Worse than nothing Another example of the need for better responsiveness came before my own eyes a few days ago. Walking downtown, I saw an elderly man, clearly a tourist, making his way gingerly along in the Othonos-Ermou area just below Syntagma. He came upon a metal fence «protecting» the public from a construction site (including a meter-deep hole), reached out to hold onto the barrier in order to maneuver around a pile of dirt, and the barrier, with the man still clinging to it, toppled over onto the street. The poor guy wasn’t hurt, just badly shaken up, and the single construction worker at the spot – himself no spring chicken – just looked on, embarrassed and unprepared for mishaps on his watch. Few things are easier in Greece, and perhaps more futile, than complaining about public works (these are, after all, vital) and the mess that they inevitably create. But there is a real problem here due to bad signposting and minimal public protection given the sheer scope of work going on everywhere. All the blocked roads, exposed ditches and fearsome-looking machines lurking about force tourists and residents alike to snake their way in and around such work areas. Often they’re simply forced out into the middle of streets to get around. I don’t know if there is a ready solution to this but I do know that heavy iron barriers that you can push over by blowing on them is not just a non-solution or a potential problem, but is a genuine danger. This will be an ongoing and worsening problem until the Games. Everybody seems to be worried about whether venues will be finished on time, and bothered by the delays, but there is little mention of the potentially great hazards lurking in and around even the most central areas. And aren’t there European Union directives on this? Construction sites are notoriously risky places, but their danger is usually confined to those working on them. In this case, however, virtually the entire city is being exposed to such conditions, with too little safety protection for unsuspecting pedestrians or motorists. It would not take many bad incidents – a tourist death, for example, at one of these sites, like I could have witnessed – to really give Athens a new but avoidable black eye in the world’s press. You have to be at street level to really notice it – not whizzing around town in cars as officials too often are. If government at various levels and the organizing committee really mean their good words about being sensitive to the needs of others, human or otherwise, they would do well to think more about all those diverted from sidewalks into the middle of streets to squeeze around cranes. And Athenians presumably know their way around; how much worse for all the unsuspecting visitors trying to make their way in a strange city without tumbling into ditches. With disaster lurking, the best public sensitivity is not found in words but in genuine protection from demonstrated hazards.