Flame arrives in a busy yet idle city

Brass bands, columns of evzones, waves of giddy children and rows of solemn choir singers, actresses in ancient-style dress, 202 flag-waving youths, Greece’s political finest, and up to 20,000 huddled Athenians yearning to get warm all welcomed the Olympic Flame to Athens’s Panathenaic Stadium on Wednesday evening. The ceremony was longer on ceremonial touches than genuine drama, given the months still remaining before the Games and the fact that most of those present just wanted to see the flame and then escape the wind. But it was another welcome boost of symbolic palliative on a day in which the other side of the Games – the nuts, bolts, and diggings – suffered a day-long stoppage they can ill afford. You had to have been there, is the general message that filtered through after Wednesday’s event, which was more impressive in person than it apparently was on the screen (which may provide a clue to the Games themselves). The right nods to global unity, peace and Greece’s past were all there in the speeches (given by Athens Mayor Dora Bakoyannis, Athens 2004 head Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki and Greek Olympic Committee head Lambis Nikolaou), but thousands of little Greek flags and the various references to the national traditions gave this affair a healthy but not overdone share of patriotism. As bucolic afternoon gave way to brisk evening, and with a gibbous moon brightening in the eastern sky, the preliminaries (songs, dances) led up to the main event, as Greek sprinter and last torchbearer Katerina Thanou jogged down the aubergine-colored carpet laid down the middle of the stadium, followed by a small army of flag-bearers. She stumbled slightly halfway along, mind perhaps more on the surroundings than on her feet, then lit the golden column-like receptacle serving as a temporary cauldron in the old stadium, where the flame takes up residence until it departs again June 3 for a world tour. Nikolaou delivered an impassioned speech with references to a «far from favorable» world situation replete with global violence and fanaticism, and remarked on the continued symbolic importance of the flame, even though «big words cannot feed the hungry or console the relatives of thousands of innocent victims.» He is, he continued, a believer «in the strength of utopia… to eradicate barbarism.» How many public figures would actually admit to being utopians in this day and age? But after the successful, six-day torch relay through the Peloponnese and Argo-Saronic Islands to Athens that has delivered a change of spirit to the Games preparations, the man whose organization put it together has the right to say his bit. The best parts of choreographed shows are often the glitches, not because they provide lighter entertainment or show that «everybody’s human» but because they give public figures a chance to think on their feet a little, and to react rather than just act out a script. So it was at one stage in the ceremony: Just as the flame was handed over to Nikolaou, who held it aloft together with Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, the wind blew the fire out. After an embarrassing second or two, the ATHOC chief calmly gestured for the head «priestess» to go light it a second time. Big applause was the result, rightly so. A hundred more things that can and will go wrong – some probably a lot more serious than a puff of wind – will require quick thinking and acting by many when the time comes. Back to the ranch It was curiously fitting, under the circumstances of the rushed preparations for August, that the flame arrived on the very day when a mass strike was taking place, shutting down public transport, clearing out city-center streets to accommodate unionists marching (again) for their pay-rise and work-reduction demands, and even shutting many private businesses too. Reports said that work continued at some work sites, but tools were idle at Syntagma Square at midday, as well as along the tramline works. It probably won’t be the last stoppage, if experience is any indication. A while back the government and ATHOC worked out a truce on strikes during the Games, but there is little to suggest that union kindness will extend four months this side of August. One Olympic sport saw its own well taken care of. The Olympic velodrome at the main Olympic complex, where track cycling events will take place, was finally fitted with the ribbed steel roof that was being constructed alongside it for many months. The roof was slid into place from 135 meters away, all 4,000 tons of it, to the great satisfaction (or relief) of the International Olympic Committee and the architect, Santiago Calatrava. This is supposed to be a dress rehearsal for a much more delicate, high-profile, and risky maneuvering of steel girders on the main stadium a month from now, weighing five times as much, which may make or break the main stadium roof project, which will be fitted with glass-like panels. How ironic that this success is counterposed against yet more revelations this week, or at least accusations, of rampant and systematic drug use, not just by errant individuals but by whole teams doing the professional circuit and who will be flying around the circular, sloped track under that impressive roof. The doping control center looks like it’s going to be a busy place during the Games. Costs for all The notion of «Olympic deadlines» has been rendered for the most part meaningless from now on, except for the main stadium roof, for which the IOC has put the end of June as the stopping point. Apart from that, the only date that matters any longer is August 13. Pull back a few weeks from that for a rushed fitting out of stadiums (like TV cables) and you have late July. Finished projects much before that, either sports venues or transport projects, will be a bonus. And in the end, as long as the Games can be held OK, a lot of the prior worry will be forgotten. The other «floating certainty» concerns the government’s Olympic budget, which Alternate Culture Minister Fanni Palli-Petralia said this week had gone way over the long-stated 4.6-billion-euro price tag. Former Culture Minister Venizelos had long insisted that any cost overruns would not exceed 5 or 10 percent of this amount, but Palli-Petralia indicated that many projects – notably the main stadium and complex renovation – have gone way over budget (the stadium complex to nearly 400 million euros). It’s certain costs will be higher still; just not certain how much. And these costs will directly determine whether Greece pushes over the 3.0 percent mark for deficit spending, the warning level set by the EU’s Stability Pact. Still, it is remarkable for a country with a history of debt, a massive urban regeneration program under way and an Olympics to pay for. Will costs be going up for Olympic visitors – and for Greeks as well? Business-hungry businesses will be tempted to jack up prices even more – Athens already being more expensive than many other European capitals – which will come as a rude surprise. How this will be checked remains to be addressed, at least satisfactorily. Will the flame’s appearance temper quick-profit appetites in the collective effort, or fuel the fires of greed on an individual basis? It’ll be an interesting test.

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