Games fight the Trojan syndrome

In the new movie blockbuster «Troy,» which screens a robust action story and two heroic characters even as it mercilessly mangles the original story line of «The Iliad,» one of the themes is that the Greeks’ assault on Troy, in Asia Minor, is greatly complicated by battle fatigue and dissension within the ranks. In particular, King Agamemnon’s continual war has pushed the Greeks’ great but reluctant warrior, Achilles, into the ranks of the dissenters. The film opens with two armies facing each other, and each side’s best fighter designated to decide the battle in a duel. Achilles is definitely not in armor, but lying in his tent with a woman – actually two, but who’s counting? – until he rouses himself enough to go vanquish his fearsome foe with a single sword swipe. Yet Agamemnon later rages that Achilles is his worst problem, more than Trojan King Priam, making it hard for his Greek army to wage war as a unity. It is one of those historical parallels that seem cheesy, yet also apt to these Olympic Games. We recently had a modern version of this phenomenon, as first one, then a second senior minister in the new government went public with statements of misgiving regarding the Olympics. First, Public Works Minister Giorgos Souflias stated that bidding for the Games may have been a mistake, because the work involved was a great deal more than first thought. A few days later, Finance Minister Giorgos Alagoskoufis capped this by saying that the balance was «more negative than positive,» as costs, much higher because of delays by the previous government, had outstripped benefits. Any positive Olympics harvest still lies in the future, since pre-Games efforts to exploit the Games’ possibilities have largely flopped – and success is even more dependent on the outcome of the Games themselves. Free-floating talk Perhaps the ministers’ aim was to put political distance between the new government and its PASOK predecessor. They may have just been thinking out loud, but the wider question is, what on earth were they thinking of? Or rather, were they thinking at all? It is now little more than two months before the Games, Greece has been through a period of almost insufferable criticism from near and far about the delayed preparations, and now its own top brass is seemingly pouring more cold water on the effort by airing contrary personal reflections. It is not that they don’t have the right to reflect, or even that what they say is wrong. These are thoughtful people, after all (Alogoskoufis may mean, literally, «horse hat,» but he’s hardly a Trojan horse in this campaign). It is possible that, in time, they could be proven right. But it is still speculation, and more to the point, atrociously timed and deeply damaging to Greece’s need, from the standpoint of public relations, to put on a united face for the sake of the coming Games. This is an odd thing for a commentator to say; after all, surely this effort needs as much candor and openness as the government and organizers can possibly muster, after all the allegations of murky insider deals and with solid information as hard to get hold of as prime seats at the opening ceremonies. As the Games approach, it is vital that they level with the public as much as they can. Yet in this case, little good can come of such comments, because this is candor of opinion, not of fact. And that’s a big difference. It also points to an unfortunate reality that still needs to be shaken off; namely that the Games preparations are still being treated, by many, as a sort of extended Greek family affair rather than as something with which to engage the world. There will undoubtedly be plenty of political bloodletting once the Games are over and the economic tally is rolling in; why engage in it beforehand too? It may take some prime-ministerial table-banging to halt such public rumbling, but as long as it continues it will get blown up in the world press as yet more evidence that the Greek effort is wanting. «Why should we support them if they themselves don’t?» will be the reaction of many. It is not as if officials are unaware of the outside criticism. Yet the best defense is a good offense, and symbolism of unity is a good antidote to petty politics. In a usefully timed ceremony, Greece launched the international leg of its ambitious Olympic torch relay on Wednesday. By the time you drag your weary bones out of bed this morning, the (jet-lagged) Olympic flame will have begun its first leg of a month-long international relay in Sydney, Australia. Athens 2004 chief Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki called it «the greatest promotion campaign ever undertaken by an Olympic Games host country;» it’s certainly the longest in distance. Filling the stands Tuesday brought more news on the ticketing front, worrying in some senses yet comforting in others. The organizers announced that 1.83 million tickets, out of some 5.3 total available, had been sold. About 3 million were designated for the public and the rest for the «Olympic Family» (mainly sponsors who foot the bill), but the breakdown between the two categories was not divulged. With scarcely one-third of the seats sold overall, after a full year of off-and-on sales, some fear a disastrous situation is looming, a repeat of the 1997 World Athletics Championships, at which the first days had empty stadiums that scrambling organizers filled with ticket giveaways and the like. No doubt some of the preliminary sessions of obscure sports have sold few seats so far. What’s the reason? From abroad, it’s likely the huge cloud of uncertainty that hangs over world affairs, not just the Olympic Games, with security concerns and economic worries making people hold off on their travel plans. It seems, reading between the lines, that sponsors’ purchases have fallen way behind Sydney levels. This means that even «Olympic Family» members, offered prime seats and good accommodation for Olympic events their companies have spent millions on promoting, aren’t sure whether they will attend. That’s a pretty powerful statement of the extent of uncertainty and fears abroad. Yet alarm is hardly warranted. The organizers have actually met most of their revenue target of 183 million euros (some 75 percent of it, whereas Sydney organizers were said to be at around 50 percent at the same stage), which means that most of those seats sold are the premium ones, or those at the popular events. Some track events, the basketball semifinals, and even sailing and pentathlon, have gone briskly. A big public relations campaign will be gearing up now that the third and final phase of ticketing is under way (as of Tuesday). Games draws for some popular sports, like football and volleyball, haven’t happened yet, and will spur sales when they do, as basketball did a few months back. Most of the seats left are the cheaper ones, under 20 euros in many cases. The evening events will do very well; it’s the morning, preliminary ones that will prove a harder sell. Good waiters And the organizers divulged the results of another cherished Greek pastime: waiting. These Games, for the first time, offered ticket sales Europe-wide, not just in the host country. And as it turns out, 80 percent of other Europeans bought their tickets in the first five days of the sales periods, whereas Greeks bought 80 percent of theirs in the last three days. No doubt many here will wait until the last possible day to scramble for their seats. And with no-nonsense Athens 2004 Executive Director Marton Simitsek holding that «the stadiums must and will be full because that is the image we want to project abroad,» you can be sure that the organizers will move heaven and earth to fulfill this prophecy. Dissension as group sport, dawdling till the last minute to decide: Nobody can say Greece isn’t bringing its full complement of national traits to the Games. And yet, the Greeks still won their mighty battle at Troy – with the help of a little swallowed pride and a lot of ingenuity, including a big wooden horse.