2004 Games: From theory to practice

If there is anything more predictable than construction delays and cost overruns in public projects, it is potted year-end histories courtesy of your friendly neighborhood newspaper. Too late to be news, too early to be history, such summaries can at least provide a little perspective on the daily news avalanche; but in the case of the 2004 Olympics, this involves an odd exercise of summarizing something that hasn’t even happened yet. Apart from the inevitables (budgets mushrooming, politics raging), the most significant Olympics-related development in 2001 was also the least visible, namely a rethink of every last aspect of security planning in the wake of September 11. It’s a new world, including for the world festival of sport. Perhaps the main general trend was that the 2004 Olympics started the year still mainly in the realm of the imagination, but ended on a much more concrete note – literally as well as figuratively. And whereas the first half seemed dominated by false dawns and tiresome governmental shadow-boxing, in terms of getting construction under way and clarifying important matters about safeguarding Athens’s few green spaces, the Games preparations moved into higher gear later, as legal problems were cleared and ground broken, most notably at the Olympic Village near Mt Parnitha, but also for the weightlifting stadium at Nikaia and for wrestling and judo at Ano Liosia. The table tennis and rhythmic gymnastics venue at Galatsi was less fortunate (which meant a temporary reprieve for area residents). The good, the bad, and the ugly On the positive side, this shift in psychology implied that the Athens organizers and the government realized, sometimes painfully, that time was, is, and, until August 2004, will remain paramount. Furthermore, this meant that the time for grand planning and big schemes demanding bigger budgets may have peaked this year, especially with the co-opting of the services of Santiago Calatrava for redesigning the Olympic Village and creating assorted other Games-related projects around the city. But his plans will be realized within a context of greater realism from now on. For this we can partly thank the IOC and its main players for keeping up the pressure without being publicly obnoxious about it. Any move from the realm of theory to that of practice also has a downside, of course, in the nitty-gritty detail. It means (for example) not just concocting a grand plan to involve thousands of Greeks living abroad in the Games, but actually working out the organizational framework for that purpose. It also means roping in commercial sponsors (the original sponsorship target has already been reached – another notable if perhaps debatable milestone for 2001) and focusing increasing attention on funding – not everyone’s favorite topic but a necessary one. Inevitably, such attention will shift people’s perceptions about what is involved; the Games will seem closer, more real, but also more daunting than ever. Just listening to ATHOC President Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki’s long litany of items for which Athens 2004 is responsible – ticketing, catering, transportation, VIP care, the opening and closing ceremonies, you name it – at a recent press conference gave a good, if sobering, idea of their immense scope. And we haven’t seen anything yet. But at least we know more about how far we still have to travel just to get to the starting line. That’s perhaps the biggest overall lesson of 2001. Footnotes and milestones for 2001 There were other important developments as well. In no particular order, these include: 1) Political changes. For the first time in two decades – an eon in the sporting world – the IOC has a new president in Jacques Rogge (after a muted battle to replace Juan Antonio-Samaranch) who seems to offer a low-key but reassuring voice of reason for the organization after recent years of turmoil. A member of the IOC board, Denis Oswald, was shifted to coordinating the Athens Games, a post Rogge himself had vacated; and Oswald’s good-natured bearing even while hobbling around on crutches last month helped create a constructive atmosphere for a mainly technical visit by some IOC Coordination Commission people. Earlier review visits came in February, May, and September. In Greece, the political changes were at mid-level rather than at the top. The three main people responsible – Prime Minister Costas Simitis, ATHOC President Gianna Angelopoulou-Daskalaki, and Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos – remain in their posts of a year ago. But the long-heralded Cabinet reshuffle in October brought in a whole slew of deputy ministers, seven in all, assigned, in a vague way, to coordinate the Olympics for their various ministries. Far from alleviating problems, it seemed to pour oil on the smoldering fire of tensions between the organizers and the government. Venizelos was pointedly designated to sit in on press conferences with the IOC; but in November he was nonetheless absent. ATHOC nominally remains the key organization, but most of the heavy lifting is being done by the government, which is building the new venues. 2) Conceptually, many things changed as well. Two developments in particular stand out. A noted outside architect, Santiago Calatrava, was brought in midyear to redesign not just the Olympic complex at Maroussi, but to create new transport structures as well, including a grand pedestrian walkway at Katehaki. The vision thing, as President Bush (the elder) used to call it, is enshrined in the hopes that brought this Catalan to Athens. The city will be left with a very visible legacy, although beauty remains in the eyes of the beholder. We shall see. The other, more practical conceptual change is that the athletics side of the Games – they count too – is shifting focus as well. The year has brought a major new emphasis to what is emerging as a second Olympics complex at the old Hellenikon airport site. Part of the controversial events slated for Marathon (the canoe and kayak slalom, which required an artificial hill being built in its former location) is now being moved to the airport site, letting some of the steam out of the single most controversial Olympics issue without deflating it completely; while more and more sports are being slated for temporary or permanent venues to be located there. Whether this site will ultimately convert into Athens’s biggest green park, or will become Greece’s biggest amusement park is a question I’m not even sure I want answered right now. Construction-wise, the groundbreaking at the long-delayed Olympic Village was the biggest new start, along with Nikaia and Ano Liosia, and the transformation of this huge project is perhaps the biggest shift in activity. Though with all of 3 percent completed since construction began in September, few will be resting on those tenuous laurels this Christmas. Certainly not Giorgos Papavassiliou, president of the Workers’ Housing Organization which is building the village, who was fired last week. So it has been an up-and-down year, ending on a somewhat more realistic and progress-conscious note than it began; appropriately so, as the euro era dawns. It calls for a small glass, rather than a large bottle, of champagne, considering that developments slated for 2002 include overhauling the Olympics complex, digging up the old airport site and starting to build a tramway to Glyfada, a back-to-the-future sort of touch for the city. Stay tuned.