How Athena got her grooves back

The Greek bicolor was snapping in the sharp breeze high above Parliament House Tuesday at high noon as hordes of curious residents and visitors milled around the Syntagma Square platform, all but the eldest awaiting their first tram ride in Athens and some, their first ever. At least the clock at the platform said noon, though I could have sworn it was closer to 4 p.m. The spanking-new «light rail» system has a lot of potential, but it needs a little more attention to the detail. Several ambitious, long-awaited and slightly shaky system launches this week have left us anticipating much more. On Monday, as a state-of-the-art security airship tried to get off the ground and rowers in an ancient-replica trireme coordinated their strokes in Faliron Bay, the slightly faster tram was finally rolled out for democratic scrutiny in the birthplace of democracy, its end stop fittingly (and amazingly) at the doorstep of the national assembly. It is three years in the making but two decades in the planning. An estimated 70,000 scrutinizers, accompanied by white balloons and black-robed priests, crammed through its doors on inauguration day for a free, if sardine-like, jaunt through their capital. And by the week’s end the tram was almost old news as other projects opened: The Olympic Village was handed over to ATHOC, the Games organizers, whose head, Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, called it a «jewel;» the Kymis Avenue extension giving access to the Village; and the Kifissou coastal highway. New metro stations will open this weekend. Happenings once separated by months are now spewing out by the day. The attendant fuss showed that something serious was culminating and a new era dawning, and not a day too soon for the Olympics. New-old system A streetcar system defines cities, including many in central Europe, in ways other transport means can’t match. It’s not like just another paved road, new trolley line or bus route, or even a metro, where the stations are underground. It’s somehow more human, almost inviting you to jump on and off at will. The Athens tram is noteworthy in two big respects. One is that it’s a genuinely new means of getting around. For Athenians inured to the menace of cars, the sight of parallel tracks at street level, running alongside roads, inside the median strips, and crisscrossing major intersections, is striking. Breathless TV reports spoke of novelty, by repeating official warnings like: don’t walk or drive (or, heaven forbid, park) on the tracks; don’t cross them without looking; and definitely don’t cross them on foot with headphones on, lest it be your last listening experience. Secondly this «new» system is, in fact, a throwback. Athens had a workable tram system through the 1950s, but it fell victim to the celebrated public (i.e. road) works of Constantine Karamanlis, who apparently got out there himself to help dig the old lines up. Antiquated, they were called. Now, after endless struggles, delays, legal action, local activism, archaeological finds, problems over the route, and cost overruns, but also stubborn belief by the faithful and pressure from the International Olympic Committee, the city of Athena finally has got her parallel grooves back, for a mere 380 million euros. Beaming Transport Minister Michalis Liapis did the honors, calling the system «eco-friendly» and saying it would benefit Athenians greatly. It is an inspiring story, in some ways, this rediscovery of an old urban solution that was more enduring than people thought, and recognition that times and needs change. The new tram involves reaching back in order to move a little more forward. Yet nostalgia and enthusiasm have not been universal. The work long disrupted traffic on critical arteries, the tracks restrict road space and the trams create uncertainty in traffic as right of way must still be worked out. Operating kinks will remain until it settles into the city routine. Some estimate that will take six months. That’s fine for locals, but not for the barbarian hordes that will soon be piling on for the Games. Its operators won’t have the luxury of breaking it in gently and ironing out problems gradually. Tram speeds, unfortunately, also approximate the pace of yesteryear, and tentative initial operations have kept them even slower; an optimistic 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) an hour is advertised. It can take over an hour to get from Syntagma to the Glyfada/Faliron terminuses – longer by far than other means. The warning screech that sounds while the doors are open could be toned down or prettied up. Yet it’s clean and comfortable, with good if basic seats, and lots of standing room; it’s also air-conditioned and gives a smooth, quiet ride, part of it right along the seafront. As some 80,000 passengers are expected each day during the Games, a lot more oval-windshielded tram cars will have to be wheeled out if mass asphyxiation due to perspiration fumes is to be avoided. Frequent trams are crucial when the ride is long. My first attempt wound up in a taxicab when time pressed. Other markers Another system unveiling, of a giant, 60-meter dirigible, was grounded by the same high winds that have plagued the Calatrava roof and, last August, the rowing test event. When airborne, it will float high above the city, wielding cameras and even chemical sniffers. Other Games have had their own airships, but this one is more technologically adept and linked to ground-level systems that feed into a common loop. Security is also a key theme at the new Olympic Village, the biggest ever for a Games, unveiled yesterday. Some services have threatened to ground themselves during the Games over extra pay for Olympics work. Ambulances and emergency crews are considering striking during the Games unless they get a bonus, which would be serious (the stoppage, not necessarily the pay); others could follow. It is a predictable and potentially major present and future (budgetary) concern. Media outlets, ever in the forefront, set the precedent early in July as the Athens Journalists’ Union went on strike, demanding better pay and working conditions, giving media owners ulcers and readers a reprieve. The sight of empty kiosks in a newspaper-besotted society – a rolling strike starting, in a fine bit of timing, the day after Greece’s Euro 2004 soccer win – was jarring. And tourist arrivals in Greece were down sharply in the first half of 2004, right as neighboring Turkey was reporting record increases, which doesn’t bode well for the post-Games future of this vital industry unless the Games’ provide a big, one-off boost. Games organizers have a thousand things on their collective mind, and ensuring smooth-running services and enough visitors and ticket-holders are two of the basic elements needed to succeed. The sleek new tram helps with the first; perhaps the soccer win will help with the latter. But there is no question that the city which even three months ago looked incapable of holding anything on this scale, has taken huge steps in mobility and readiness to ensure that it can. For the organizers, apart from the overwhelming issue of security (currently centering on who can carry guns around), transport remains the biggest potential home-generated headache as brand-new systems – including the suburban railway to the airport – are put immediately to the ultimate test. The other big potential problem blankets the sports pages daily; doping investigations, suspensions and suspicions across national boundaries and sports divides. The IOC and Athens 2004 have an immense responsibility in patrolling this scourge at the Athens Games, with both cycling and athletics laboring under an avalanche of unwelcome news. The work doesn’t end with the ribbon-cutting.