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In defense of a little bit of urban messiness: Some perspective on the pre-Olympics chaos

A few weeks ago, at that big get-together of national Olympic committees in Athens, I slumped down on a couch for a breather after some hours of listening to speeches and other tedium. Another guy, much older, a delegate from Colombia or somewhere, reclined at the other end. As somebody who would rather visit the dentist than go around asking complete strangers questions out of the blue, I had to work up a little nerve to solicit his opinion about (what else?) the Athens preparations and all the reports of construction delays. With a world-weary wave of the hand, he said, basically, that most people writing about it didn’t have the slightest clue about the construction industry, and had no business pontificating on a subject about which they were ignorant, and that everything would be fine in the end. End of conversation; but you had to admire his equanimity and candor. That guy has followed Olympics preparations for decades and knows a thing or two about the whole process as well as the details. He’s seen it all before. And to him, the case of Greece and 2004 was far from unique, despite the snowballing parade of commentary about the Athens Games spewing daily off the world’s presses and what they’d have us believe. Could’ve seen it coming All the reports make it all sound the same: The city’s a busy, dusty mess and everybody’s in a tizzy (fill in the blanks). It’s surely all true, but it’s neither unique nor unexpected, and a holiday week is as good a time as any to step back and look again at what’s happening. First, the overall picture was fairly foreseeable. Back in 1997 or 1998, someone who knows Greece intimately asked me whether I thought Greece would be ready for the Games (even hearing the question posed at that early date tells you something). Without even knowing much about it then, I immediately answered that probably little would be done for the first six and a half years, then everything would be miraculously crammed into the last six months. Turns out that was a little pessimistic, but not that far off. Many would have said the same. So many outsiders seem surprised that things are this way, with the final-year rush to complete projects years in the making creating unnecessary anxiety in the process. I’m always tempted to ask: «What the hell did they expect?» Greece is a dusty, rocky place in a physical sense, with a complicated legal system and fearsome bureaucracy, and Athens is a very crowded, sometimes unkempt city full of still-buried antiquities below it. When you undertake major projects in such a landscape and environment, you will produce a chaos in the short run before it all comes together, as it will. To think it would have been any other way would be to suspend belief about Greece, about construction, and about the Olympic Games. When the International Olympic Committee chose Athens, in 1997, that was in the good old days when IOC members could make multiple trips to the host city to inspect things before they voted on the candidates. (Now there is a ban on such visits because of lavish under-the-table gift-giving.) Preliminary voting rounds are held and poor candidates eliminated. It’s an exhaustive, multi-year vetting process even to win the bid and get into the starting blocks. The international Olympic world knew what it faced in a Greek Olympic project, or certainly should have. They didn’t rely just on what they were promised; they could see many of the structural challenges with their own eyes. Picking an Olympic city is a judgment on the present as well as a bet on the future. In short, none of us, including the experts, should be too surprised at today’s dilemmas. It’s a sobering, but also liberating thought. We were all wrong (or at least shortsighted), yet we could have seen it coming all along. Being themselves Greece is simply being what it is, asserting some of its age-old characteristics under new circumstances. Part of this is the public promises still flying in the face of realism, like the prime-ministerial «guarantee» of a safe Games a few days ago. And there is a nonchalance with which quite a few locals still espy the whole operation buzzing around them. Greek affairs often get polarized and vivid because of it, but in this case, there is a fair bit of middle ground; not everyone is gung-ho about the Olympics or flat-out opposed to them. Of course, it would make for a much smoother pre-Games operation if everyone cooperated on this singular goal, and would definitely give a better impression to outsiders. But expecting unity among Greeks on such a major economic, political, and psychological issue is surely misplaced wishful thinking. Many are taking it admirably in stride, watching from a cafe table, ridiculing it on television, arguing about it with friends, fighting to keep their house or shop against a road-widening company, or still wondering (with just four months to go) what they will do about their local business in August, whether to go away or stay at home. Planning for August is still in short supply among those not immediately involved in the Games; even that’s part of the old Greek spirit. I suspect most will choose to hang around for the show, and will thoroughly enjoy it, as well as get a huge rush of patriotic pride in the process. But you’ve got to admire the perverse mettle or stoicism of those who just can’t bring themselves to give a hoot for now, who look askance at the juggernaut like they’ve seen it all before, even though they’ve never seen it before. The Olympics are part of Greece’s unparalleled lore: They are Greek lore, but they are still only part of that lore. Greece will carry on in its rhythm of life, and the Games will slot into that reality, rather than vice versa. There’s some useful wisdom there. It’s good not to take things too seriously; laugh a bit; it’s games we’re dealing with, and apart from the very serious security issue, it is, in fact, not that serious. The Games are about enjoyment and admiration of great athletes and getting venues functioning and people moving around safely. That’s really it. It’s not about the future of the planet, and we’ll all – public, officials, organizers – have a lot less stressful spring and summer if we just take a step back and enjoy the ride rather than worrying about all the bumps in the road. These will be rough-and (hopefully)-ready Olympics that reflect the country we know. When in Athens…