Mad dashes and policy clashes

Brinksmanship is nothing new in Greece, in democratic politics, or indeed in Olympic preparations the world over. The butting of heads and attitudes is necessary to move from one level to the next, as Hegel said, though in reference to ideas rather than building roofs and widening roads. Still, the principle seems to be the same in the ongoing game of the Games. The elections may be long over, but the aftershocks persisted this week when New Democracy’s ministers, eagerly off to the races after a decade in opposition, took to their new jobs with a vengeance and fanned out all over Attica to inspect the state of progress. This came after a pep talk from International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge to Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, last Saturday, on a flying visit to Athens, when he gave the government a two-week grace period to learn the ropes, make tough decisions, and prepare for a frontal assault on Olympic Mountain. Yet he insisted there was still time to get everything done, as long as priorities were kept and extraneous items (like sleep) pared to the minimum. At this rate, even the Orthodox Easter in three weeks’ time will bring no respite. Only the lighting of the 2004 Olympic flame – incredibly, less than a week from now – will bring a touch of Olympian calm to suddenly frantic Greece. Spinning the Games Spurred but not yet chastened, the new officials collectively reported back that the situation was – grave? desperate? insurmountable? A three-in-one term would be about right, to hear them tell it. Though they are monitoring projects in their final stages, «starting over» is the new drumbeat. Maybe it’s appropriate, with the vernal equinox upon us. Are these detached assessments by responsible public servants, or post-electoral maneuverings by political professionals but public-works neophytes? There is plenty of scope for either interpretation, and it did not help that several key appointees from the previous government have resigned. Former Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos, for his part, naturally keen to preserve his standing, said that New Democracy is overstating the problems, using fearmongering in a roundabout strategy to claim success in turning it all around later on. The wider question – at this point anyway – is, who cares? What people say is unimportant compared to what they do, and pointing fingers is the world’s easiest vocation. One area of seeming difference but actual convergence is the most important of all: Games security. Once a police task and later a Greek security job, this has now been transformed, officially, into a bona fide international military operation. PASOK had approached NATO informally about providing coverage for the August Games. Once clear of the elections, the new government made the request official; NATO’s top body has already agreed. An ongoing, major security test operation, «Hercules’ Shield,» commenced within days of the polls and is filling Athens’s warming skies with choppers and jets and its streets with patrol cars. NATO is undertaking a new kind of peace-maintenance operation, though its member states’ own national athletes, coaches, and visiting politicians will be among those requiring protection. And the question of who pays still needs resolving. The security issue, of course, has been ramped up from crucial to critical in the wake of last week’s horrific bombing attacks in Madrid. Planning is paramount, and the niceties of sovereignty will now take a back seat in the wider effort – temporarily, of course. No less interesting has been the domestic impact of this world of insecurity; the previously unthinkable (a big attack on the Athens Games) has not only become «thinkable» but has gripped domestic commentators with a perverse glee, as if some taboo had been lifted to liberate tongues, unfortunately via a tragedy visited upon a fellow Mediterranean people. «We’re all vulnerable,» becomes the wider message. Time ticking The margins for error on the biggest project headaches have now been reduced from months to weeks, and perhaps, unofficially, from weeks to days. Those projects are no secret: the stadium roof, the most visible and architecture-conscious project as well as one of the most expensive projects; the swimming pool roof, the source of much misunderstanding and hand-wringing; the tramline to the southeast coast; the suburban railway from the airport to the city; and the marathon route’s widening. Each could have planners sweating well into July. Take, for example, the main stadium roof. The latest reports are that Santiago Calatrava’s grand design will be finished on July 20, about three weeks before the Opening Ceremonies. They say it won’t affect other stadium preparations. Alternate Culture Minister Fanni Palli-Petralia said we were «right on the edge» with the roof. Transport Minister Michalis Liapis was no less dire about the tram, saying the current breakneck pace was still inadequate and that 24-hour work would commence to save any hope of completing it in time. And as for the swimming pool roof, reports continue to contradict each other. Last month IOC chief Jacques Rogge announced the imminent signing of a new contract after the old contractor couldn’t fulfill the job. A few days later (and a day late), the contract was announced. Yet on Wednesday, Palli-Petralia said that no new roof contract had been signed, while at the same time it was announced that a tarpaulin would serve as the roofing cover for shade. The marathon route, a second instance of a constructor unable to complete work, at least has a new one to widen the road, but their work too will go right up to the last days – pleasant news for Athenians trying to get to east-coast beaches for a bit of summer relief. Not all dire The problem with concentrating too much attention on a few big projects is that it overlooks countless other elements that will also make or break the Games, some of which are quietly going well. It also creates a herd mentality among those writing about it. At least two other factors – one negative, one positive – are also evident. On the downside, as venues and transport projects are completed, attention will shift to how they look as well as function. This aesthetic side of the Games, the landscaping and rubble clearing, could shape up as a midsummer nightmare unless this work can somehow be sped up (extra fertilizer?). Hellenikon, site of the old airport and new Olympic venues, is a particularly raw example at this point, as Giorgos Souflias, public works minister (and a civil engineer), noted this week. Yet in all the gloom-mongering by the new figures responsible (faithfully reflected in a world press all too ready to pounce) there has been one very important, and thankfully persistent, trend in the preparations for over a year now. Sports officials actually using the new or renovated venues via their athletes in the ongoing sports events, generally sound very upbeat. The latest to be tested, for gymnastics this week, has evoked yet more raves by international sports officials, while the tennis event starting tomorrow will be at an Olympic tennis center that’s inspiringly renovated by a Greek architectural team. And «venue» is not just synonymous with «building»; it includes the organization, the technology, and the people, paid and volunteer, supporting the operation. The Games showcase the world’s best athletes, and in this respect Athens is very far from falling down on the job.

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