NEWS

Staying off the hot seat as the summer heats up for the 2004 Olympic Games

Greece’s Olympic summer hasn’t cooked up to much so far – weather-wise, that is. Unseasonably cool temperatures this week and month have been great for pouring concrete (or planting more of the hoped-for greenery) but make you wonder whether all the fears of heat are warranted. But August is still a long way off. Other hot topics have, however, been on the front burner this week at a three-day conference involving hundreds of visitors getting an earful of Athens’s security plans. These include almost everything, it seems, including the latest addition to the growing arsenal, 32 million euros’ worth of radiation detectors courtesy of the US Energy Department to prevent «dirty bombs» and other unpleasant things from seriously spoiling the show. The International Atomic Energy Agency is also lending a hand in planning. And the numbers keep escalating. A month ago, 50,000 security, police, and military personnel were to be used; in the wink of an eye, the number shot up to 70,000. Where from, pension lists? Opening the conference, the chief Athens organizer, Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, pointedly criticized those outsiders who keep trying to point out holes in the security net. «I am concerned… I worry,» she was (uncharacteristically) quoted as saying, because «harm is being done to the Olympic Games» and that it’s just «bad security strategy» for anyone to bad-mouth efforts aimed at doing just the opposite. These involve NATO surveillance and squadrons of anti-this and anti-that weapon that go way beyond the guards on platforms who will be visible at the sealed-off venues starting in early July. The participants seemed satisfied at what they heard. However, the Australian director of security at the Sydney Olympic Village in 2000, Bob Myers, whose country has emerged as the Games’ new bogeyman for issuing an ill-timed caution for Aussies traveling to Greece, let his temper show in criticizing «people» (whoever «they» are): «All they try to do is to second-guess what might happen. They don’t leave the people who’ve got the work to do… They tend to ask questions; nobody appreciates that.» (Frustration ran both ways: Athens 2004, the Games organizers, just canceled its agreement with an Australian firm to deliver the stadium seats, in lieu of Greece’s Aktor, while denying any linkage with the security flap.) Yet Myers too agreed that the Athens organizers are «doing everything they can» to keep the Games safe. Larry Buendorf, chief of security for the US Olympic Committee, echoed this and said it was high time that we start talking about the competitions and let the athletes «enjoy the time of their lives that they have worked so hard to do.» Refreshing words. A visiting Jacques Rogge, the IOC president, said sensibly early this week: «Does that mean we can guarantee 100 percent security? Of course not; no one can.» Government officials in Greece, still inclined to pronounce that these will be safe Games well before the fact, need to take a cue from the top Olympics boss in hedging their bets while sweating out their responsibilities. Nothing lasts forever While plans to prevent outside violence from harming the Games were being finalized, another, sanctioned form of violence, boxing, was under way across town at the boxing hall in Peristeri, another well-constructed venue (despite being switched at a late date) in the middle of seemingly nowhere. It is hosting one of the last pre-Games events before the venues are «locked down» for security at the end of next month. Suddenly, this long, frustrating but useful preparatory period is coming to an end. Will the informality reigning up to now disappear with all the regimented regulations and transport restrictions and amid the hordes of people descending on Athens that have to be shepherded around a city under lock and key? Perhaps the seeming chaos has not been so bad after all, compared to the opposite. Cost pressures Another, lurking issue is rising prices. Greece already has one of the European Union’s highest inflation rates (though low by historical standards), while Olympics costs have pushed the deficit to above the 3 percent-of-GDP warning level. Both are anathema to the EU. The coming of the Games is putting huge upward pressure on the whole price structure. Business groups have pledged not to cash in on the expected boom by keeping a ceiling on their prices, although the effectiveness of this depends entirely on the level of that ceiling. Hoteliers have come under withering criticism for «budget» rooms running up to 250 euros a night; in defense they cite hefty investments in upgrades and point fingers at a handful of unscrupulous owners. Some 5,000 rooms in Athens apparently remain unrented, so maybe there will be a price war after all. Unfortunately, some of this reflects the lack of previous efforts to advertise Greek tourism in tandem with the Games – something that’s happening now, if awfully late. And very high oil prices (now around $40 a barrel on world markets) due to Middle East tensions will affect the Games in a big way, from higher travel prices for individuals to higher fuel costs for the energy-hungry Games themselves. Greece even appealed to the EU this week for a special, temporary dispensation from high energy consumption taxes in order to cope. But the government will still come under severe pressure from Brussels to get a better grip on the macroeconomic situation before it gets out of hand – even if it stems from long before the March elections or has little to do with Greece itself. But buried in the small print was a surprisingly robust assurance from Dr Rogge that «I have no doubt [the Games] will be a great success.» Clearly, it’s time for everyone to circle the wagons and put on the best possible face. And he thanked the organizers for forging a «formidable partnership» in overcoming the traumas of the past three (or seven) years. This came Monday at the opening of the International Olympic Academy’s yearly youth session, on the ancient Pnyx hill near the Acropolis – an annual event that underscores Greece’s old connection with the Games, 2004 or no. Flaming off Finally, after we’ve seen the last of the IOC Coordination Commissions and seen off the worst of the construction delays, we now bid goodbye to Greece’s own Olympic Flame, at least temporarily. Burning in front of the Panathenaic Stadium since late March, it now flies off next Wednesday to Sydney, site of the 2000 Games, to open its «world tour.» It will be aflame again on Greek soil when Greece itself is burning – weather-wise, that is – in July.