Rendezvous with 2004 finally arrives

Amid boisterous crowds, bad weather that miraculously improved just in time, shouts of peace and hope, and some spectacular pyrotechnics over the Acropolis, Athens welcomed 2004 in fittingly grand style late Wednesday evening. The long-awaited year is finally here, and one in which Athens will be transformed by hosting its biggest-ever peacetime event. After this seasonal lull, very soon all of Athens and much of Greece will be plunged into a frenzy of activity built around a single purpose, providing a better, cleaner, and more presentable place for the Games, over a million visitors and the world’s cameras. The Games are coming at a difficult period, and major undertakings don’t come for free. Escalating security costs are perhaps the biggest change; then again, nobody knew that September 11 would happen. But all in all, the Olympic Games are bringing benefits that need reiterating in this season of good cheer and rampant political speculation – especially when so many opinion makers, particularly in the media, still seem to regard sneering at the whole shebang as a sort of professional obligation. Discounting the costs Eventually, even if many can’t bring themselves to admit it yet, Athenians and Greeks will have the Olympics, and the 2004 deadline, to thank for countless improvements to their capital, for providing a long-term economic boost that will counteract their cost, and for giving the country a welcome shot of pride and this troubled world a bit of needed tonic. The biggest «Olympics expense» actually involves permanent improvements to transport infrastructure in the crowded Attica region. Were it not for the Games, then these projects would have been many years in coming – and would have been far more expensive than otherwise. Caught in a three-and-a-half-hour marathon just to get across town in that horrible rain-induced traffic jam just before Christmas, I too harbored serious doubts whether Athens could ever function decently. Yet Greeks and Athenians are exceedingly fortunate in benefiting from not one but two unique circumstances that have made these projects both possible and advantageous. One is that EU infrastructure aid to Greece peaked during these years, making Greece the largest per-capita recipient of EU structural aid of the 15 current members. All this will fall off in the next few years, as the third big «package» (Community Support Framework III) winds down and as 10 new member states come in with hefty aid demands of their own. In effect, Greece is buying its new infrastructure at a discount as sharp as any Harrods sale in January. Other Europeans are helping to pay for these projects too, and keeping Greece’s GDP at remarkably high, 4 percent levels. The second unique circumstance is the unshakable deadline you have heard so much about. All these efforts are being channeled into projects that simply must be finished, or at least serviceable, by the Games. Were it not for this deadline, they would linger without end and at ever-escalating cost. So it is not just that these projects are «good» for Greece; Greece is lucky to be able to rely so heavily on EU matching funds (despite the country not always setting a good example as a member state), and on the international Olympic movement for providing the deadline (and expertise) to get it all done. This all represents a slice of astonishing good luck that comes along rarely for any country, yet so many people, ever fixated on the negative, still don’t seem to see it. (A recent poll indicated that only about 57 percent of Greeks saw the Olympic projects as «necessary infrastructure»; in a year or two, the figure could well be over 90 percent.) When the refurbished electric railway stations, new tram and suburban railway, new metro stops, road projects, and new transport hubs all come on line, people will soon wonder how Athens ever managed without some of them. Sense of purpose The Games also provide a sense of national purpose, in a country that has been modernizing rapidly and losing touch with many of its traditions in the process. Past events that have riveted collective Greek attention, from the civil war to the junta to the Cyprus invasion to the Macedonia issue, have all been either overtly political or traumatic in some way. This is a rare occasion in which the country has had to think about, and act on, a peacetime festival directly related to improving its conditions and its image. That alone is a welcome change for a country that has seen its share of misfortunes. The Games’ romantic-historical element also appeals, without banging the drum about it. The world will quickly tire of being endlessly reminded that Greece birthed the Games. Nobody likes to hear too often about the obvious. Some of the sports facilities may ultimately be superfluous, but it’s an overstatement to say that Athens will be left full of useless empty structures. The capital could probably live without a new beach volleyball arena. But context is needed. Overall, Greece has had, until now, an embarrassingly bad sports infrastructure, with some teams (including for 2004) actually having to train abroad. There are good reasons why Greece did not produce a single Olympic medalist from 1912 until 1960. This has changed markedly in the past two decades with some great champions, and will get better over time as Greek athletes take advantage of their new facilities. And in fact, the Athens Games will only have about half as many tickets available as did Sydney; venues are smaller, and white elephants will be fewer. The change to more temporary seating, often seen as bad, is actually very good cost- and environmental-wise. The abovementioned poll showed that most Greeks (around 80 percent) fear for the overall costs. No one knows the final price tag yet, including Athens 2004 (the organizers) or the government. But EU funds have helped pay for the accompanying infrastructure, while most of the organizers’ costs, covering Games services, are not taxpayer-generated but come from TV and sponsors. And unless officials are flat-out lying about the budget situation, Greece even now, with 2004 projections, anticipates a budget deficit of well under 3 percent – a far better fiscal situation than Olympics-less France or Germany. Greeks will no doubt have to pay some of the additional costs, but they are lucky that the Games didn’t happen 10 years ago or 10 years from now, when the relative costs would have been far higher. And with a new prime minister and elections on the way, the (normally ephemeral) organizing committee actually provides some needed continuity in Greek public life. Steady as she goes Over two-thirds (68 percent) of those polled have great or considerable confidence in Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki’s ability to deliver a good Games – itself a remarkable figure in the mess and gloom of midwinter – while about 58 percent have a very good or good general impression of her. The fact that the confidence measurement outscores the «impression» figure is probably a reliable indication that she is doing a good job; after all, her role is more that of corporate CEO than politician courting popularity. And she remains probably the only person in Greece who has the drive, the confidence of outsiders, and the audacity to pull this mammoth organizational project off successfully. The effort itself would be miles behind without her in place. If she rubs some up the wrong way, that is probably inevitable for anybody for whom effectiveness, not popularity, is the crucial criterion. IOC President Jacques Rogge recently promised «difficult days» ahead. Yet as long as the high-blown rhetoric is kept in check and more is done to shore up their environmental legacy, they could not only succeed but surprise even ourselves. This promises to be a memorable year in every way. All it takes is to open our eyes to see it, and a little hands-on faith too.

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