Athens sketches out a Games plan

Athens, you might have noticed, is having a wholesale, Olympics-driven urban makeover. And there’s nothing subtle about it. New roads and other transport systems are being plowed through, around, under, and over the city; the southeast coastal zone is being «reclaimed» for Athens; sports venues are popping up like mushrooms after a rain. Brand-new, multi-modal transport hubs, like the one at Aghia Paraskevi / Stavros, are being built where before there was just a graffiti-covered bridge and a lot of motorized chaos on the way to the beach. Things might even start looking up for poor old Omonia Square. Just about everybody, apart from the contractors rubbing their hands all the way to the bank, hates these messy, inescapable projects right now, and the winter rains have barely started. But apart from the congenitally churlish, most will come to appreciate their long-term necessity. We’re all like candy-loving kids being forced to eat our spinach now because it will make us stronger when we’re grownups. The acceptability of that theory, of course, depends on which end of the deal you’re on. Yet many other changes will apply only during the Games, when Athens will become a wholly, eerily and perhaps refreshingly different place. Some sketchy outlines emerged Tuesday at a rambling press conference after an interministerial meeting chaired by the prime minister. At least we know when, if not exactly how, it will operate: From two weeks before the Games until a week after them, that is August 2 until September 4. A modified plan will be in effect for the Paralympics following that, while the Olympic cities of Volos, Thessaloniki, Patras, and Iraklion will also be affected. Two questions arise. First, how will Athens be changed? And second, how will Athenians react to seeing their city operate with unaccustomed Teutonic efficiency? Will the changes prove permanent or fleeting, with the old and known, if not always comfortable, ways proving an irresistible lure even in the march of progress? For all the focus on infrastructure, it is attitudes that will ultimately determine what Athens makes of it all. A balancing act The plan involves a delicate and unlikely balancing act between disrupting people’s lives as little as possible on the one hand, and on the other, providing a clean, efficient and secure environment for visitors and a «uniform character» for Athens – which, of course, will disrupt normal life in this cheerfully chaotic city. The plan may be late in coming, but a major consultation process is clearly under way, and is vital, given all the interest groups involved and their potential for causing mischief if left unsatisfied. Both Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos and Athens 2004 President Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki took pains to stress the need for consensus: that is, getting all groups to curtail their activities and think of the bigger picture – Greece’s image – for those few weeks on world television. It’s a delicate task, after this season of non-stop strikes and at the outset of a long election season. Consensual decision-making is not, to put it mildly, the usual way in Greece. It only goes to show that there’s nothing normal about hosting an Olympiad. Press Ministry Deputy Telemachos Hytiris stressed that PM Simitis wants no «military-style» occupation scaring everybody off, and no restrictions on expression or free movement. And yet, the «gentleman’s agreement» will have plenty of bite when the time comes. A strategic center, headed by a «city manager,» will be set up to provide lightning-quick responses to any problems, such as demonstrations that get unruly (or too visible). When the time comes this «Olympics czar» won’t be negotiating with 62 organizations and 120 municipalities like the current process. Don’t think for a second that high Olympics officials will risk having their opening ceremonies ruined by a teachers’ march. The local regime Some of the plan makes perfect sense and will be good for the locals; other aspects are tailored for temporary guests and are exclusionary. Athenians will benefit from a weeks-long emphasis on mass transport, and will probably be amazed at how frequently and fast the buses run on the Games schedule. They might even find bus drivers waiting patiently for those running for the bus instead of smirking as they pull away. Mass transport will run 24 hours a day, and ticket holders for all events will have free transport for the entire day they’re ticketed for, an inspired move. Accredited people will have free run of the system throughout. The roads will have severe restrictions for cars, either parked or moving. Entire lanes will be given exclusively to «accredited vehicles» (don’t worry, yours won’t be). Driving won’t be a feasible option, even at night, because all businesses will have to restock after midnight, when the garbage trucks do their rounds and when the street cleaners are out in force. Residents around venues will be issued special cards, while they will be surprised, perhaps rudely, at how efficiently cars get towed from awkward spots. But those hoping for Sunday shopping hours will have to wait until after the Games to get their wish. One good step is that many restrictions will be limited to specific areas, namely the inner ring of Athens, the venue areas, Piraeus, and the coastal strip from Piraeus to Glyfada. Best foot forward Much emphasis is being given to the impression that Athens will make for visitors and viewers. How it will «look» is obviously part of this, but the «feel» of the city will be equally important. And here a service revolution will be needed. Most visitors will come from well-heeled countries, which also means that they will be used to levels of service that Athenians are not accustomed to – or, more pointedly, are accustomed not to expect. Will rogue taxi drivers rip off unsuspecting customers? Will costs go through the roof? Who will keep the streets clean? Some 22,000 jaded journalists won’t hesitate to expound un-poetically on any rip-off «Olympic meal.» There’s no indication yet of how price-gouging will be dealt with. And will the Games-time transport efficiency prove lasting? Many prices in Athens are now higher than they are in big German cities, yet few would venture that German, French, Dutch or other European tourists (the bulk of Olympic visitors) can get service here anywhere close to what they get back home. Clearly, this is a serious problem for the future. Time used to be that Greece could get away with mediocre tourist services because of local color or because its prices were a lot lower than elsewhere. But the uneven euro adjustment – the upward lurch in prices without a similar leap in quality – has done away with this logic and the cost-argument for traveling to Greece. Here we have the real question for the future of one of Greece’s biggest industries: Will the country and city improve its all-around services enough to bring the greater numbers of higher-quality tourists they say they seek? Will the Games open, or close, this door? Breathing easy Venizelos was also able to set worried minds to rest by firmly denying a report in a German publication concerning plans for an Albanian-led insurrection in the north of Greece during the Games. Apparently some believe that while everybody is busy watching pole-vaulters and cyclists in Athens, irredentist elements will be trying to cut Greece in two and turn Thessaloniki into the capital of a greater Albania. It is reassuring to know that Greece will, after all, remain one country while hosting the world.