NEWS

A week to go and all’s (fairly) well

If a rolling stone gathers no moss, then Greece is anything but green these days, as this country of ancient stones barrels ever faster toward its unchangeable, non-refundable Olympics deadline of August 13. A week away from its date with destiny, Athens is alive and buzzing as it rarely is at any time, much less in the dog days of August. At least a year ago, the International Olympic Committee’s Denis Oswald said that Greece was «really taking Olympic shape.» He may have been premature, but his delayed prophecy is coming true in breathtaking fashion in this summer of 2004, where expectancy and anticipation is the operative emotion, as the key elements are suddenly falling into place. An astonishingly high percentage of Greeks (88 percent, according to a recent poll) have come out of the woodwork, taken their free train and tram rides, and expect the Games to be as good as any, ever. IOC President Jacques Rogge arrived in Athens on Wednesday for the duration of the Games (bar an unexpected calamity) and promptly said that he was «sure that Athens is ready.» «We know that the promises will be kept,» he added, perhaps unnecessarily in light of the past three months of almost devastating efficiency by Greek companies, the State, the organizing committee (ATHOC), and all the workers, foreign and domestic, corralled to the effort. For good measure, Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis added on Tuesday evening that «we are fully ready,» and that «we will achieve the common aim of hosting an extraordinary Games» with maximum security. And ATHOC head Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki said, «The Games will be unique» with full stadiums, and that she was still in good shape after a long marathon. Extended hard work wears most people out; with her, with the Games, it seems amazingly energizing. Accord, for the moment The main players are certainly on key, and right on time: The relative lack of discord is being reflected even in media reports. That says volumes about how much the completion of venues and the arrival of expectant athletes and discerning journalists has changed attitudes. There’s nothing like seeing things for yourself, as opposed to being told what’s happening. The spacious media center is open for business, the Olympic Village is growing by hundreds daily, and the competition venues are all security-swept and locked down. And McDonald’s (a worldwide sponsor) has announced that it’s officially open at three Olympic sites, a sure sign that the world has finally arrived for the Games – with or without championship-caliber cuisine. Naturally, there is a price for the sudden readiness, and it is both tangible and intangible. The measurable costs have risen greatly: The government’s estimate is over 6 billion euros ($7.2 billion), excluding the organizers’ 2-billion-euro budget. Olympic projects alone have risen to about 3 billion euros (more than double the original estimate). Spending has risen over 16 percent this year, and the deficit is up 26 percent in the first half. It is both tedious and churlish to bring these uncomfortable truths up in what Rogge called a «magic moment» stepping off the plane Wednesday, but in a month Greeks will be tallying the bill and the European Union, with its 3 percent allowable ceiling on deficits of member states, will be breathing down Greece’s neck. The issues will restrain the fiscal maneuverability of the Karamanlis government for the remaining 3.5 years of its term. But what’s a little debt when you’ve got a world Games on your hands? One sign of intensifying interest is burgeoning ticket sales from an admittedly low level. Some 5.3 million seats are drawing steadily rising sales. At the end of June, less than 2 million were gone; now it’s over 2.5 million, according to Michael Zacharatos, an ATHOC general manager, which is still less than half. Whereas once 3-4,000 tickets went daily, 38,000 were sold on Tuesday. At Sydney 2000, over a million were sold during the 17-day Games period. The organizers here hope for the same. The Greek numbers manage to be both more and less reassuring than they appear. Financially, the organizers aren’t worrying; their target of 183 million euros has practically been met, for in a strangely typical Greek fashion, the most expensive seats all went first. What’s left are the many cheap seats, which are proving hard to sell even though the prices were kept low to entice lower-incomed Greeks to go. A case in point were the extra 500+ main-stadium seats that came available, including the intensely sought-after opening and closing ceremonies. An ATHOC blurb claimed that 49 100-euro tickets were sold in just five seconds Monday morning (presumably not at the same counter), and that all were gone in a morning. Friday, August 13 looks like a field day for ticket scalpers, although security even extends to ticketing in order to minimize efforts to capitalize on people’s patriotism and loose wallets. And just as Athens’s seven-year Olympic cycle is coming around, it is somehow fitting that hotel rooms, which dominated the lead-weighted press conferences in 2000-01, are suddenly now back in the news. Back then it was securing enough rooms for the Olympic Family. Now there are unbooked rooms in Athens, and slashed prices to entice last-minute tourists; it even made a brief mention on CNN on Wednesday. This is a prime example of miscalculation on a gross scale by Athens hoteliers who, emboldened by their owners association’s long-running cartel and driven by dreams of Olympic gold, had raised prices many times their usual levels. Now comes the payback. Fear is the downside of greed; it’s a law of the marketplace. And their problems have been compounded by a hotel workers’ strike this week, of which there could be more – during the Games. If you have any doubts that the Olympics are largely a financial proposition, such examples will dispel them. Oddities With its teeming mass of humanity, the Olympics raise almost endless possibilities for things to go wrong, even if you do not wish it on anyone. One technician, short of electric plugs, bought some at the store next door to the press center (hypermarket Carrefour), only to be stopped by a guard when bringing them back into the building, who told him that only products from sponsoring companies were allowed in. The technician’s response was, basically, that the guard had to have been putting him on. A more trying development occurred at Piraeus on Monday, where some accredited Mexican TV journalists were caught filming in a no-go area, bundled off into a room, and, they said, beaten. But they weren’t hospitalized and their ambassador said in a statement that they had been kicked, which changes the story. ATHOC said it «strongly regret(s) what happened.» Wherever the truth lies, the moral is that ultra-tight security and the pressure and nerves it creates could well lead to other such incidents, but also to umbrage by visitors expecting the system to make exceptions for them. We can’t have it both ways. And the Australians still seem game for a sparring match with Athens over the earth-shaking question of «whose Games were better?» John Coates, it’s Olympic committee head, made a point of saying that Sydney had finished its venues earlier, and that although the Athens Olympic Village was better, it was sparsely landscaped «but it makes up for that with dogs» (a dig at the discovery that some strays had strayed into the heavily guarded compound). Love that humor. Season’s greetings These Games are a bit like Christmas, easier to anticipate than to get in the mood for. There is something about the masses pouring in, the heartless quotas used for distributing accreditations to individuals, the workaholic sports people who eat their mobile phones for lunch, and the rows and rows of desks that are changing the 2004 goalposts. The Athens Games were almost better to like when they were behind schedule, embattled, with little respect from abroad and backed mainly by the impressive fortitude of the ATHOC chief and her dedicated crew. Now that they are welling up to a great crescendo, they have lost some of their character while gaining in other ways: for bandwagons are harder to love than the little engines that could. Perhaps this will change once the flame arrives and the Games begin. For now the cloud lingers and the spirit can tend to sag even as it all gets more impressive by the day.