Frontal focus on the Games as the new government puts its cards on the table

For the longest time, preparations for the 2004 Olympics managed to conjure up one of those thriller-movie images in which the hero and the villain are busy pummeling each other into the sand while a giant tidal wave rears up to wash them out to sea, or are struggling in an underwater fight scene only to look over and see a huge shark about to devour both for lunch. Either way, short-termism, turf battles and settling of scores are losing propositions against the bigger challenge. In their own past scuffles, Greece’s two big parties occasionally lost sight of the bigger picture, to the detriment of the Olympics effort they otherwise supported. The Games have been touted as a national project in this small country, and to their credit, both parties have long recognized their great significance. But given the nature of a dualistic political system, they were often going in different directions in a fair imitation of Dr Doolittle’s fanciful animal the pushmepullyou. While the government, in charge of infrastructure, was run by PASOK, the Athens 2004 organizing committee was (and still is) led by a New Democracy figure in Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki. And those tussles went way back; remember the refusal of PASOK ministers to attend the Sydney Games? This, at least, is one element that was well and truly extinguished in last Sunday’s elections. The floating fears of hung parliaments were dashed within minutes of the polls closing, or even before (in fact, the late results brought a huge ND victory back to being merely a big one). Whatever else happens with the preparations from now on, they no longer have political uncertainty or one-upmanship to act as a drag on progress. Poker anyone? The new prime minister, Costas Karamanlis, minced no words in saying that a Cyprus settlement and a secure Olympics were his two main priorities. The issues are similar in some ways: Both are crucial for Greece but will be determined largely by outsiders; both are full of pitfalls while under way; and both hold possibilities of later backlash if too much is compromised. The Games may be less immediately crucial but are sure to dominate the late spring and summer. The new PM called them a «big national wager,» unintentionally assigning a lotto-type element to one of the very few major sports events in which betting is frowned on. But the biggest move was Karamanlis naming himself culture minister. Doubling up responsibilities is rare but not unheard of; Andreas Papandreou was his own foreign minister during tense years in the 1980s, as was his rival, Constantine Mitsotakis, a few years later. Winston Churchill was his own defense minister in World War II. Still, it is uncommon enough to draw attention when it does happen. In this case, it demonstrates the PM’s Olympic-sized responsibilities, for in Greece, apart from protecting and showcasing the country’s entire artistic legacy, the Culture Ministry also oversees the Olympics (as well as the Cultural Olympiad). At first glance, this decision seemed odd, for during the campaign it was PASOK’s Papandreou who spoke more about cultural policy in general, but Karamanlis demonstrated his priorities right up front while also taking advance responsibility for anything that goes seriously wrong. Streamlining the chain of command was surely high on his (and the International Olympic Committee’s) list after the roundabout previous system. Some had wanted a separate Olympics Ministry – as operated in Australia before the 2000 Games and as the IOC wanted from the start, but which former PM Costas Simitis resisted – headed by the Athens 2004 president, Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki. In the end, this did not come about. It’s probably a good thing at such a late date; with exactly five months left until the Opening Ceremony, her time would be poorly spent drumming her fingers on the table at drawn-out Cabinet meetings of a new government. The Culture Ministry is also alone among the 19 ministries in sporting an «alternate minister» in addition to (and ranking higher than) two deputy ministers, which in this case soothes the thwarted ministerial ambitions of ND’s longtime, and outspoken, Olympics spokesperson, Fanni Palli-Petralia. And Angelopoulos-Daskalaki will have clearer channels to the PM than was formerly the case. For the Games’ sake, this concentrated system is bound to function better, even though it accompanied an unexpected resignation in the Games’ general secretary, Costas Kartalis, a PASOK figure. The only trouble is that it is late for new organizational blueprints; with no days left to lose, we’ve lost weeks in holding elections and rearranging things this way. The IOC’s response will come soon enough. After having spent an exhausting week of meetings in Athens late last month, IOC chief Jacques Rogge will be back for meetings with the new PM tomorrow. Other faces Other ministries will be hardly less crucial to the Games’ success. Transport Minister Michalis Liapis will rule at a crunch time for the city as several brand-new transport systems (suburban railway, tram, Kifissou highway) will all come on line late this spring, and with the Olympic transport plan awaiting implementation with minimal preparation time. Public Order Minister Giorgos Voulgarakis has the responsibility for Olympic security (and has already had his house targeted by a group that hates the Olympics). Defense Minister Spilios Spiliotopoulos merely has an internationally coordinated defense-and-police operation to look out for – starting this very week, with a huge, two-week security exercise involving hundreds of troops from Greece and abroad. If that goes wrong, he’ll be jumping from the frying pan into the fire in his first six months on the job – hoping they’re not his last six months on the job. And the suffering tourism sector, in serious need of regeneration at a time of declining numbers, rising costs and the huge question mark of 2004 visitors, was given former Mayor Dimitris Avramopoulos. While he could always pull off a surprise, his naming sounds, to the uninitiated, rather like a political payback for the former maverick coming back into the party fold just in time for the elections, rather than a fire-breather who will kick a crucial sector of the economy into gear. Time will tell if this crew of 47 ministers, deputy ministers and one alternate minister will all come together in this huge task, but there’s no doubt as to who’s yanking on the rope. Events galore As if on post-electoral cue, a whole slew of pre-Olympic sports test events will be spotlighted between now and the end of March. Starting this morning, in fact, the first of no less than 10 sports over the next two weeks will be competed in this version of a rolling Olympics. A fencing event begins at the Hellenikon fencing hall – offering a first glimpse of the old airport’s hangars just converted into sports arenas – while tomorrow a tae kwon do event will inaugurate another of the several venues on the Faliron coast. Don’t laugh; a Greek took a gold medal at Sydney in tae kwon do. Two separate gymnastics events, artistic/trampoline and rhythmic, will also be held, along with a tennis tournament. In the month’s final week, five «ball sports» (softball, baseball, handball, goalball and football) will all be on tap. Goalball is a Paralympic-only sport, while the football event is near Patras. And in two weeks exactly, the Olympic flame for 2004 will be lit in Olympia, inaugurating a four-and-a-half-month on-and-off relay. Then we’re truly off to the races. It might facilitate things if leaders would stop saying Athens will stage the best and safest Games ever. «Good and safe» would be fine by most of us.

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