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Building bridges and jumping ditches: The Olympics try to unite a divided world

As we are reminded frequently, the Olympics bring peoples together under the great umbrella of world sport. Three of its key elements – swimming, cycling, and track and field – are on show at Athens’s local antfarm, otherwise known as the Olympic complex (OAKA), even as we write. About half the personnel swarming around are there to provide services, while the rest are doing their best to keep you out; blanket security, modern-style, remains a double-edged sword. The Games’ aim has been broadly political from their late-19th century start, and is underscored by the symbols wheeled out every four years. The International Olympic Committee heads up the effort, while Greece’s hosting role has been portrayed, rather self-consciously, as a sort of national bridge, not just with the past but in today’s world politics – as in pressing for a world truce – at least when it’s fending off criticism. But as recent events have shown, the high bridges above and dirty ditches below are all part of the scenery. Bridges above… One of these symbols of linkage is fire, via the highly touted first «world torch relay» that is hopscotching across East Asia aboard its special airplane, with a second carrying the human baggage accompanying it. First it went to Australia, then to Korea and Japan, then China, now India. To the Chinese, 2008 hosts, it was a big deal, even if it stirred a little controversy as Yao Ming, a very big basketball star (in every sense) playing in the US – but without an Olympic medal to his name as yet – tried to back out as the final relay runner there. His touching modesty was overruled by the powers that be, and he ran after all. India was similarly enthusiastic, despite other thorns on the rose, in the form of movie stars chosen over sports personalities to add spice to the relay. Last week marked another linkage, as the Calatrava roof high above the Olympic stadium was connected via cables and on dramatic display this week and looming above the one and only track and field event being held before the Games. The blue polycarbon panels being busily attached make it a nearly ready covering after so many agonizing months of waiting; and all the wondering has turned to wonderment. Calatrava’s other roof, for the Olympic cycling velodrome, is being finalized too, and that venue also reopened this week for a test event of its own. Complicated underpasses and overpasses are being brought online in Neo Faliron soon; and a footbridge is finally being built across the Katehaki overpass to facilitate foot traffic to the Olympic stadium. Further west, late last month a far wider gap was finally closed, that between Rio and Antirio near Patras, a mammoth, decade-long project that will open for traffic this summer. It is the longest cable-stayed bridge in the world, built to withstand hurricanes and 8-Richter earthquakes. But in this cynical age, few have mentioned how visually breathtaking it is, even from far away, as well as what an engineering triumph it represents, what an economic opportunity it provides, and not least, what a demonstration that the Games have stimulated major projects far from Athens itself. When the flame crosses it in early August, the symbolism of unity will be redoubled. Even the maligned Cultural Olympiad lent a hand in the holding of hands, with the world premiere of Philip Glass’s eclectic «Orion» in Athens and Thessaloniki this week that was not even deterred by a bit of rain. All in all, summer 2004 is giving Greece a chance to reach out. …Turbulence below If notions of unity were all that mattered, this would be a jolly good world heading into a happy event. Despite such symbols and triumphs overcoming division and doubt, the messier realities are bubbling up with regularity too. Part of this surfaced over the weekend after an interview given by IOC President Jacques Rogge to a Belgian newspaper which suggested some bitterness regarding past struggles with Athens, not with the organizers but with the previous, Socialist government, over Games priorities. It seemed out of context and out of character, as Dr Rogge has been invariably gracious up to now, at least in his public comments; even last month, when visiting Athens, he made a point of thanking the prior, Simitis government for all its hard work. Yet clearly, past tussles have left their bruises and led to this untimely reference to overblown plans, expensive venues, and overspent public funds. Saying he had always argued for simple designs and venues, he held that the Greek government made them too elaborate for the time it had left, after 2000, to execute properly; the roof was only the most visible manifestation of it. Backing itself up against a wall, the time-pressed government left no other option except to pay contractors whatever they demanded. It is not exactly the way the elected representatives of a sovereign state like to regard themselves. Another question concerned the timing; why now? He appeared concerned about shielding the IOC from post-Games criticism over costs in an angry Greek debate that is likely to come in September. Perhaps (surely) he knows more than he is saying; perhaps he’s read his history well (as soon as the 1896 Games were over, Greeks and the IOC under another French-speaking president, Pierre de Coubertin, went at each other like a pair of cats in heat); or maybe he just got up on the wrong side of the bed. Whatever, it erects another barrier that doesn’t need to be at this juncture. But as for the substance, his point has been confirmed over the past few weeks. Venues are being completed, but their costs have been reassessed, and the results made senior ministers, along with the rest of us, wince. Finance Minister Giorgos Alogoskoufis, on whom its fallout falls hard, gave pointed warnings of cutbacks ahead, while Public Works Minister Giorgos Souflias has also made some loose-lipped comments. Rogge’s intervention was different; it concerned some critical choices that were made in the midst of preparations, at a time when costs could still have been kept under better control. The entire official line on the budget has changed, or rather, the entire budget line has officially changed; for the worse. For years, it was held, officially and robustly, at 4.6-4.7 billion euros. After the elections and the reassessment, the ballpark figures being used suddenly leapt closer to 7 billion. This is an astonishing escalation if accurate, and not just due to the higher security costs, which (at least officially) hover at around 1 billion, still a relatively small percentage of the escalating whole. The government negotiated some major but poorly explained loans to tide it over until fall, which muddied the same waters it was otherwise trying to distill. Outside Greece, the country’s longtime pro-European stance and the extraordinary security operation being put in place did not stop the EU from issuing a report this week critical of Greece’s anti-terrorism legislation since September 11, saying it lagged behind what the EU countries had agreed on in terms of a joint arrest warrant and creation of joint investigating teams. This may not have any bearing on the Games themselves, but it is a public slap that is especially badly timed, even if it was directed also at others (Italy and Germany got fingered as well). Cross-purposes The Games may try to bring the world together, but the smiles in the IOC-Greek partnership being touted just recently, as well as in the Greek establishment, are strained. It’s an uncomfortable dynamic that doesn’t bode well for after the Games. It’s also ironic in that both the IOC and Greece have publicly declared, and are in the process of fulfilling, the same aim: to make these the best Games for the athletes themselves. Hopefully any spats can be contained for the sake of the great event, and it’s still likely that tempers won’t damage the Games themselves. But the Games can build their bridges better without them.