Fleshing out old concerns for the new year, the Olympics and Greece’s future

A new year, with new experiences, new test events to test new sports venues, spiffy new transport systems to open for business, a new Olympiad and set of Olympic Games, new elections, a new prime minister – Greece will certainly not be lacking for novelty in 2004. And these are just those elements that are already known, here in the first half of the first month of the year. If change is the only constant, then there will be plenty of constancy in these coming 12 months. Who knows what experiences wait in store? And yet, the Olympics preparations have reached the point where much of what is going on is no longer new at all, but old and known: This is the seventh and final year of preparations; we have a good idea about what basic look the city is likely to assume during and after the Games, and many of the most worrying earlier concerns have seemingly been overcome – not just the one-time (and long-ago) threat of removing the Games elsewhere but the possibility of the «Calatrava roof» or some key venue simply not being ready. It is going to be a mad-rush spring, but it’s no time for blueprints and bright new ideas but for staying the course and making the most of this one-of-a-kind opportunity, while also coping with the soon-to-come onslaught of images and people. A non-political Games? Already, this year, just a fortnight old, has brought some potentially far-reaching changes to the Greek body politic: Prime Minister Costas Simitis is resigning as of March 8, the day after the elections, he has just announced – and regardless of the outcome. Thus, from then, Greece will have a new governmental head – to be picked between two of the oldest political families in the country. His heir apparent, George Papandreou, will be PM if PASOK makes up its current deficit and wins; otherwise Costas Karamanlis will lead the first New Democracy government in a decade and only the second since the 1970s. Here is an interesting non-dynamic in relation to the Games: Greece is a politically besotted country, even if not quite to the degree it was in the past; the Olympics have always been subject to political pressures of all sorts, both within the organization’s broad net and from outside, due to the Games’ great visibility. Put two and two together in the form of a Greek national election campaign right in the middle of the final Olympic push, and an outsider might think it a recipe for an Olympic-sized disaster. And yet, one of the few relative certainties during this final stretch is that the Olympic preparations will be largely removed from, even oblivious to, the political whirlwind. Organizers have underscored that the elections won’t affect the preparations, and the main politicos have soothed the earlier fears of Denis Oswald, the International Olympic Committee’s main overseer for 2004. Their reassurances were reassuring, yet hardly necessary. The fact is that no major party would dare disrupt the late preparations by deliberately holding up key appointments, halting construction or anything similar. There is far too much national pride at stake in putting on a good show. Conversely, there is plenty of what we might call «negative pride» at stake. The international outcry would be deafening; nobody would dare want to be accused of sabotaging something that means so much in terms of Greece’s national visibility. Reputation, and the need to shore it up, is the operative principle, far more even than the economic losses Greece would suffer if the Games were somehow to flop. At any rate, both Karamanlis and Papandreou are clearly keen on the Games. The latter is already busy pushing the Olympic Truce to the world (he also wants a «truce day» designated for February 25), while the initial Games bid was supported first and foremost by New Democracy. And with Greece’s electoral system, the smaller parties, some of which want no truck with the Games at all, don’t have much of a chance to be giant killers and coalition make-and-breakers. Carrying the torch Another known development has been further fleshed out this week. At a press conference on Wednesday, details were given about the domestic route for the Olympic torch relay – which begins, incredibly, in just a little over two months’ time, on March 25. Some 7,700 Greeks, «local heroes» according to Athens 2004’s Marton Simitsek, will carry the torch for 400-meter stints. The relay was announced late last year in a grand ceremony, and now applications are open for those spots. The relay will pass through Greece twice, once on its first, brief trip to Athens, then outside Greece, then back again for the longer Greek legs through hundreds of towns, all 54 districts and dozens of islands and archaeological sites. And there is even the possibility that the torch relay could involve Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot torchbearers jointly in the now-divided city of Nicosia, should the island manage to reunite by then (July), or in time to enter the European Union by May 1. That would be a genuinely inspiring sight, itself worth the 46-million-euro cost of the relay, especially as sponsors (Samsung and Coca-Cola) are putting up over half that amount themselves. Torchbearers can buy the torch they carry, if they like, for just 305 euros. Culture wars, again Old wine has appeared in new bottles in yet another sense. «Marbles Reunited» is the name of the newest pressure group, launched this week, to return (what else?) the Elgin Marbles, taken from the Parthenon 200 years ago by the first Lord Elgin, to Greece in time for the Games in August. Many individuals support the repatriation, including (say polls) the vast majority of Britons – with the current Lord Elgin being one curmudgeonly exception. But all that matters little; even governmental pressure won’t move the British Museum, with its usefully independent governing regime. The only change seems to be that the museum officials are now widely being portrayed as the bad guys in this curious and continuing story that, in the end, is not really a story. The issue appeared near a breakthrough last year, but all came to naught. It seems that the museum has decided to hunker down and weather the onslaught of Olympic-year demands for the Marbles’ return to Greece, even on loan, in time for the August Games. If they wait long enough, it will simply be too late, which it may already be. All ideas along these lines seem to have been floated, save for one: Would it not be easier, under the admirable aim of reuniting sculptures with temple, just to move the Parthenon to London?

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