Finally, the longer view: Greece after 2004

Terms like «The Day After» have a slightly chilling suggestiveness; they seem like harbingers of bad rather than good news or could even be a useful subtitle for a disaster movie. Barring real-life disaster in Athens during next year’s Olympics, the question of what kind of Greece we will see – or want to see – the day after the Games are over has lurked, half-hidden, ever since Athens assumed the responsibility in September 1997. Since then, even as that distant future looms ever closer, attention to it has tended to recede in the face of more immediate anxieties over simply getting ready for August 2004. A symposium Thursday on the aftermath of the 2004 Olympics was a useful reminder that it is now high time to start planning, seriously, for Athens’s and Greece’s Olympic legacy, beyond the obvious infrastructure and other physical monuments that will be left behind once the crowds have gone. The awareness is welcome, and although few are predicting after-the-flood calamity, there is much free-floating concern (about half of businessmen think conditions will worsen). And there were uncomfortable indicators that the time may already have passed to produce an overall plan with broad support to capitalize on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to the benefit of Athens and Greece. Is Athens, after all this time and effort, in danger of missing the boat? The conference presentations (which left no time for questions or other formal interaction) managed to address, if not answer, many lingering questions. There was plenty of bipartisan criticism of the obvious (antipathetic bureaucracy, lack of transparency in public projects) yet also plenty of partisanship about the possible solutions, copious pie charts, and a trio of distinguished bankers who managed to talk for an hour without mentioning the Olympics at all. A new era, in theory It was, nonetheless, a vital starting point for something – even if that something (apart from the coming elections) was not as apparent as it could, or at this late stage, should be. One question looms: Will Greece merely experience the post-Olympics future in a passive sense, come what may, or will it actually work pragmatically to make that future happen? There is little question that the Games represent, as the IHT’s Achilles Tsaltas said, the dawning of a new era, not just for Athens but for Greece. Several speakers emphasized this emergent reality, among them Costas Karamanlis, leader of the opposition New Democracy party. During his lunchtime address, he pointed to 2004 as the end of a 30-year cycle beginning in 1974 with the restoration of democracy. And though this new era will affect all, just how the chips fall remains a political concern: Government figures invariably sounded a more optimistic note than did those from ND on the effort so far and on the likely state of the economy afterward. The fundamental trouble is that, while the timing is ripe in one sense, it is poor in another; a national election campaign is about the least conducive time to make a planning effort that transcends political alignments. Thus, while all seem to agree on the need for a coordinated approach in theory, and many had some excellent suggestions to that end, no one is positioned to put a workable plan forward, or even plan to make plans. One of the more optimistic and well-rounded notes was nonetheless sounded by European Commissioner Anna Diamantopoulou, who said the time has passed for a «stagnant approach» to investment and that major happenings and events like this can provide a major boost, ever since London’s 1851 Fair advertised the benefits of British industrialization. Since the 1980s, the Olympic Games have been turned from a loss-making proposition (losing $178 million at Munich in 1972 and nearly $700 million at Montreal four years later) to the money spinner they are today; the 2012 competition is among the world’s elite cities. One result is the huge growth in direct investments for the Games, which in turn produces much indirect and deduced economic stimulus, like better quality services and higher country identity. Barcelona, the acknowledged star of Olympic-related development (see below), plowed nearly $8 billion into the urban and regional economy – some nine-tenths of it being structural projects unrelated to the Games – and reaped rich returns, such as higher sustained levels of tourism from the rest of Europe. Greece has made such input these past years, but is it enough to ensure that it projects the country into a higher orbit?