The challenge of resurrecting the Olympic dream in a city facing a punishing deadline

With the Orthodox Easter putting a (slight) crimp on activity over the past 10 days and the Cyprus issue dominating discussion on the airwaves, the Olympic preparations are rolling along relentlessly, but without the headline coverage they got in previous months and will, no doubt, dominate from now until fall. Not only is specific news lacking, even the overall picture is a little subdued. Yet the Easter season still managed to throw up (not literally, mind you) two contrasting images for the Games, one sudden and striking, and one more relentless, if not creeping. The first came on Sunday evening, when all was quiet on the Athenian front, except for TV news crews out busily reporting the busyness at the tram works. What appeared was dozens, perhaps more, of workers and supervisors diligently at it – on a Greek Easter Sunday, after dark – fighting to get this new urban rail system in place in time for the Games. Relish the sight of people working publicly, very hard, on the most cherished day on the calendar in these parts, because you won’t see it next year. The second image unfolded relentlessly through the week, not on TV but in these very pages, with a succession of articles – not commentaries, just news pieces – about various aspects of the Olympics effort. One was about the Cultural Olympiad’s limp to the finish line, its leadership having resigned after the elections and its budget crimped even further; how hospitals need to hire hundreds more workers in the scramble to cope with an onslaught of visitors; how the tram has a 50-50 chance of being ready on time; how the financial books are in disarray with the change of government and its recalculations of the overall Games costs; about Athens’s worsening parking problem and its implications for the Games movement; about the folly of planting preprepared grass for landscaping in lieu of other foliage; and about how Athens has yet to upgrade itself for the disabled. The roar of pundit approval is almost deafening. And the holiday cheer has spread to Patras where, we also read, preparations for the city as Europe’s Cultural Capital for 2006 are already in disarray because of infighting, deficient planning, and too little money. In short, never before has Athens surpassed itself so much to work so hard for its own future, and never before have its own commentators been so down on that same endeavor. The round-the-clock work is being attributed to purely negative elements like time desperation, whereas it’s a sight to behold in its own right. It makes little sense to fret over bad press from abroad when we’re so busy doing it ourselves. Even the Beijing 2008 planners seem to be in on the comparison act, announcing in grand fashion that all their facilities will be completed 18 months ahead of time, including a brand-new stadium for 100,000 people. They might add that China is a hundred times the size of Greece in population and many other senses as well. Brighter days ahead? They say that the darkest hour is just before dawn. Are we at that stage now with the Games? The growing organizing committee, sensibly, have their heads down and are plowing ahead, and there is every reason to believe in positive as well as negative surprises from them, especially given the relentlessly downbeat message washing over us, which presumably most people, not just me, eventually grow weary of (and the organizers just wary of). The Municipality of Athens has become very active in its own planning and city improvements, and the government itself, despite its newness and the burden of the now-peaking Cyprus issue, is throwing its weight behind the effort. Very shortly, the venues will be all on line, the Village putting on the finishing touches, and the new trains, trams and roads cranking up for the first time. The city will be hopping even more with activity, curious visitors, and an air of excitement. Things will be happening as they never have before; all this chaos will start to coalesce as the dust settles and we can see beyond the next road detour. Even now it may seem preposterous, but we’ll all probably be amazed. It is, of course, possible to pick the whole thing to pieces, bit by bit, just as you can with most anything. However much the individual parts have been afflicted by bad contracting, overoptimistic planning, delays, nonchalance, budget restrictions, elections, or half-baked ideas, the real issue is the overall impact, what it means. No doubt in the 1950s, Constantine Karamanlis (uncle of the current prime minister) weathered a non-stop stream of ridicule as the (then-combative politician and prime minister) plowed Greece’s (then much scarcer) national resources into a highway system, a series of Xenia hotels for the growing middle classes to take affordable holidays, and other national infrastructure projects against cries that it was a big boondoggle. Yet when it was all said and done, he was hailed as a visionary, as he was later for his then-seemingly hopeless effort to get Greece into the (then-) European Economic Community. What was contentious at the time later seemed like a no-brainer. Measuring value Will the same be true for the 2004 projects? The parallels are uneven (does Greece really need a wrestling arena?), but much of the infrastructure will probably be seen, someday, as desirable and necessary. If resources were squandered in the process, that’s a function of how things operate overall, not a function of the projects themselves. In fact, much of the anti-Games sentiment rests on the «wasted resources» of the Games, but in fact, the notion of «resources» itself is not so simple. «These resources could have been more wisely spent elsewhere» is the common refrain, in reference purely to the money being spent. But does anybody really think that, say, 4 billion euros spent on something else (remodeling hospitals, advertising Greece abroad, giving it to regional authorities, or any other ostensibly good purposes) would have been more wisely used? Is the allocation and spending process fundamentally better / less flawed / more transparent in hospital administration or regional government than in Olympic project administration? The answer is rather doubtful, even on the face of it. In short, what is in question is not just monetary resources, but attitudes and practices: how resources are spent, rather than how much is spent. As most people are all too aware, Greece could upgrade itself greatly by attitudinal reforms in, for example, the bureaucracy, where any foreigner here must jump through the same self-defeating loops time after time, or among drivers – things that would not cost anything. «Resources» certainly encompass more than budgets, just as the Olympics experience will be more than about the stadium roof or ticket prices. Even if you assume that the Olympic projects have involved waste (hardly a heroic assumption), the situation is probably no worse than in other fields – and at least, at the end of the day, we’ll all end up with a better-functioning and looking city, and hopefully a great show to remember in August 2004 along with good publicity for the country as a result. So despite what you might be reading these days, things really could be worse, and they might very well start to get better – despite ourselves.