The strange world of expectations

As the year sails (or for some of us, crawls) to a close and winter pulls us inward, it becomes difficult, to put it mildly, to think in detail about an exuberant summertime sports festival still two and a half years away. Everyone’s head has been filled with information on budgets, venue construction, roads, and whatnot, and frankly, what has not been accomplished by now won’t get any further along over the Christmas holidays. At such times it pays to look broadly; not just at what the Games mean for Greeks – an economic windfall, a symbolic return to their roots, a chance to bask in the international spotlight, a spur to build roads faster than otherwise, a hugely expensive headache, or all the above – but at the sheer scale of the enterprise, and the often strange game of expectations that surrounds it. Hello Hollywood The first mistake is to look at the Olympics as just another big festival that will somehow slot into the local scenery. Wrong; it will form the scenery itself during August 2004, much as a Hollywood set becomes the reality of the Wild West during movie filming. The Games will challenge even Greece’s renowned ability to soak up influences from elsewhere and still retain its essence. At a conference held this week on the Greek economy, David Ignatius, executive editor of the International Herald Tribune, presciently commented that Greece is one of those few countries that can only be what it is, such is its character and chief national characteristics, in what was perhaps a backhanded compliment. Greeks do things at the last minute is one of those old saws that reinforces itself through sheer force of repetition, and this has been evident during 2001 with the Games preparations. We’ll manage somehow is the upside interpretation of this truism, relying on wits where organization fails. One problem with such interpretations is that for the Games’ duration, Athens will largely cease to be Greek at all. It will be taken over by tens of thousands of officials, athletes, media representatives, TV camera crews, security people, and visitors from all over. It will become a giant, temporary United Nations of sport. City residents won’t know what hit them. They’ll scarcely recognize their own city, made spiffy and clean and green for all the visitors. In fact, many won’t even be here, as their businesses shut down for the month and send them on holiday. And the massive logistical operation means that essential deliveries will continue all night long for the Games’ duration. The organizers estimate that 2,000 container vessels and 5,000 trucks will be used to transport various goods, with some 3,000 people directly involved in this delivery operation. It will be military in dimension and timing, on a scale quite staggering for this little country, especially considering it will be not just Greece’s biggest ever single undertaking, but the biggest Olympics ever staged. Loving the underdog Many in Greece, and often rightly, get irritated or defensive when the subject of Greece’s foreign image comes up. The image of a Greece not being up to the challenge of hosting the Games fits into this mold. But the country can actually turn such perceptions to its advantage. Think of what happened between the two Games bids for 1996 and 2004. The reason Athens won the second time around not only reflected the solidity of the bid file and lots of infrastructure in place. It also reflected vast improvement over the previous effort, which amounted to building a stadium and claiming the Games were Greece’s by right, and which was rightly rejected. It does nothing to detract from Greece’s impressive second try to say it also benefited from a comeback perception; that it had been knocked over once but was returning chastened, wiser and stronger. Beijing won in its second major effort, too. The same can be true for 2004. Regardless of whether there is any negative general bias toward Greece elsewhere, there has unquestionably been wide reportage of Greece’s construction delays and political infighting. This may reflect the path of least resistance; if people elsewhere already think that Greeks love to procrastinate and play politics, then their preconceptions will simply be reinforced by reports of the same concerning the Olympics. It is so easy to harden one’s pre-existing notions or prejudices; old thought patterns are hard to break. Yet in a low-expectations environment, the element of positive surprise becomes greater. The threshold of success is lowered, and the chances of surpassing it increase. In other words, it’s a lot easier to succeed when nobody expects you to. That’s the great advantage of dropping the hyperbole about creating the best-ever Games. And that’s the psychological trump card for a small country trying to accomplish something big. Anyway, it’s unnecessary and unfair at this stage to predict doom. Many Games hosts have lagged behind schedule with three years to go. At Sydney, someone at the conference mentioned, the Village was apparently not finished until six weeks before the Games. Admittedly, the time has long past when the Games can be incorporated into a wider, realizable new vision for the city overall, on the scale of Barcelona. But they can certainly be held successfully and without major embarrassment. The cost to future generations is another matter. Flies in the ointment A keen Olympics observer pointed out to me recently that the main problems arise from unexpected, not assumed, sources. At Atlanta, an expensive computer system was littered with problems. The main concerns about Athens initially centered (apart from security) largely on air pollution and traffic. But neither is likely to be a problem in the end. In fact, we should not be surprised to see a near – or perhaps even total – ban on daytime city traffic, perhaps even covering the greater Athens area. Don’t think for a minute that the organizers will run the risk of having athletes miss their events because of clogged roads. Residents will be told to use public transport to get to the events, or else asked to stay at home and out of their cars, or out of Athens. The authorities don’t hesitate to close city streets when visiting dignitaries come to town, or for roadworks, student demonstrations, or street markets. I doubt if they’ll relax during a once-in-a-lifetime event. The potential pitfalls will come from things everybody thinks will go smoothly. Imagine, for example, the bad publicity that would follow a major theft of tickets, or a breakdown in the Olympic Village power supply, or a bad batch of food leaving athletes bedridden with dysentery on their competition day. Everybody expects Greek hospitality and culinary flair to rule. But as the huge catering operation will likely use lots of entrepreneurial enterprises to fill in gaps, there is a potential for cracks in the whole operation. Perishables perish fast in the heat of summer. Beware those fresh-looking eggs in August. Not all problems can or will be solved. And as current IOC concerns include securing another 3,000 hotel beds and approving the official Olympics mascot, most of them are, thankfully, far from earth-shattering.

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