Battles over the Olympics’ legacy

Next week another gaggle from the International Olympic Committee will arrive in Athens for more inspections, meetings and grillings over preparations. It will be their 11th such official visit, and if precedent (and the announced schedule) is any guide, the cycle it covers will include (a) tough words from Denis Oswald, the chief inspector, just before arriving, (b) a two-minute early-morning photo opportunity (no thanks), (c) a lengthy venue tour to get prying journalists as far away from the meetings as possible, and (d) a Friday press conference where all will be mollified and reassurances given that things will, in the end, be fine. It is curious but in a way predictable, at least publicly. The chief issues will likely be security and transport, both having been geared up several notches this week. Security matters came to a head after the surreal scenes of cop battling cop in Athens last week; the security budget just went up 25 percent. And transport, an ever-present headache for ever-present reasons, came up again after reports of unfulfilled promises regarding two projects, the suburban railway and the electric tramway, which prompted a meeting between the organizing committee head, Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, and Prime Minister Costas Simitis. Past a future concern Naturally, these and other issues agitate today and weigh on tomorrow. Each day is one of battling the clock to get ready, a present obligation to prepare for the future – and in this case both for the near-term (August 2004) and the longer-term future of Athens and Greece. But on a different level, there is a second struggle lurking, and one where these Games have a special role. For they are also about the past: not just remembering history but struggling over their legacy. The issues are more abstract, and probably unknown to most people, but they are felt no less intensely. They go back further than the 2004 preparations and will long outlast next year’s Games. We will be hearing more as the year goes along. It involves questions like: Is there really a line of continuity from the ancient to the modern Games? What was Greece’s role in the founding of the modern Games vis-a-vis philhellenic foreign dreamers like Pierre de Coubertin, who got most of the credit? How is this legacy to be determined and divvied up? These two levels – preparing for the future and reconciling with the past – have always been linked to 2004. Transport Minister Christos Verelis indicated this unawares recently in commenting on the suburban rail project. «From the start,» he said, «it was clear that keeping to the exceptionally tight time line would be a giant effort,» while adding, «Until today, the work’s progress is completely satisfactory and on time.» He was saying, without really saying, that they’re keeping to the schedule even though the schedule itself was never really operative because of initial delays. Somebody moved the goalposts. Spin is the operative word, even if those doing it don’t even know it. And in a much broader way, the very legacy of the Olympics is still, a mere three millennia on, also the subject of spin. Spinning history The propagated, sketchy version is that the ancient Games started in 776 BC and ended in AD 393, were Greek only and were based on amateur principles. They suddenly started up again in Athens in 1896, with Pierre de Coubertin as their benevolent French founder. The hard truth, however, is a lot softer than these specifics make out, and in trying to get a hold on it, countless people, many with interests in mind, will be hardening their positions. There will be endless attempts to «set the (historical) record straight» in the coming months. Yet the «record» itself is full of holes and questions. Much may be unknowable – not just regarding the Games of antiquity, which is natural, but even with the 19th century record. In fact, much early modern Olympics history was penned by de Coubertin himself, with his eye firmly on his and his creation’s legacy, while even the Games of 1896 left a poor written record that’s still being debated. Much about this past, in other words, is left to interpretation – and today that means subject to vested interests and protection of legacies for whatever reasons. You wouldn’t think Olympics history could be so controversial, but it can be, as the skeptical establishment reactions to David Young’s revisionist 1996 book «The Modern Olympics: A Struggle for Revival» showed. Time out of mind History is a funny thing. What happened happened; yet in another sense, what happened is only a matter of what people tell us. In other words, according to the interpreters, the guardians of the memory, who distill the information and sometimes filter out unpleasant elements. That key problem of journalism – the search for objectivity – is equally a problem in the writing of history, which is not just a matter of laying down mutually agreeable facts. Some things get overemphasized, others underemphasized, sometimes deliberately, other times not. And a lot of bruised feelings can get involved when the subject involves national history, on the one hand (Greece’s) and, on the other, an international Olympic legacy that often emphasizes different elements. Many Greeks rightly feel aggrieved, for example, at the implication that foreigners were responsible for restarting the Games, and who (for example) may underplay the important Zappas series of Games in the decades before 1896. Officials at Olympia, in the Peloponnese, where it all started, feel aggrieved that Athens is getting all the credit and the glory in 2004. Is history getting ready to repeat itself? At the 1896 Games, a bit like now, things were late, seemed chaotic, and money was tight. Planners kicked into high gear in the final months; all came together for the Games, which came off better than expected. But afterward, all the old grievances cropped up again, worse than ever, as Greeks and the foreign elements battled over taking credit for the success, causing a lot of bitterness in the process. And the Games overall since then (from many if not all viewpoints) have been a huge success with a great impact. So naturally, there are also high stakes in determining who launched and sustained them in their formative years. It’s ironic that the Games, supposedly history’s open-ended legacy to mankind, also involve battles over names and interpretations and credit for initiatives and successes. The Olympic legacy is inspirational, no question about it, but it has also produced fierce copyright restrictions, institutionalized interpretations of the past, and zealous guarding of the legacy. It is a sad inevitability, and inevitably sad when you think about it. Drugs are a scourge of the Games; commercialization can ruin their appeal, but clamping down on the very name and legacy in order to protect it – or to generate income from it – can be equally unfortunate; and many legacies from powerful families or nations create similar pressures to conform to the myths. It’s not just an Olympics problem but an Olympic-sized one. Will we benefit from coming tussles over the Olympic legacy? Will they shed light on the past, or merely cloud it over and entrench old beliefs? The Athens Games were and are meant to be a celebration but they are also shaping up as the next battleground over the past. Let’s hope that knowledge becomes a winner, not a victim.