Another 21-year campaign reaches its destination

Imagine an Olympic Games effort as a great, flowing river. Everybody knows where it ends: the turbulence of national preparations spilling out into the great sea of humanity with the opening ceremonies. Pinpointing the origins, however, often requires the fortitude of those intrepid explorers who set out to find the sources of the Mississippi or the Blue Nile. Pierre de Coubertin famously called his efforts to found the modern Olympic Games a «21-year campaign.» What he meant was not just the two-year rush to put on the 1896 Athens Games, but the decade of incubation in which his educational ideas morphed into plans for modern sport in the service of international good will. And he didn’t really regard progress as irreversible until 1908, the fourth official (and fifth real) Games. Athens’s road to 2004 follows a curious historical parallel. It started not just seven years ago, when it won its bid, or even four years ago, when preparations started in earnest, but over two decades ago. In the 1970s, post-dictatorship Greece looked with concern on an ailing Olympic movement beset by terrorism (Munich 1972) and debt (Montreal 1976). Charismatic Prime Minister Constantine Karamanlis, a conservative playing the non-aligned card, proposed for the Games to be set permanently in Greece in a designated neutral zone near Ancient Olympia. His off-the-wall proposal at first gathered little attention or support, although it got new impetus after the Western-boycotted Moscow Olympics, the same year (1980) that the foundation stone for a new and bigger stadium was laid, in Maroussi, home of original marathon winner Spyros Louis. Cemented hopes The stadium was unveiled in 1982 at a packed ceremony, with Karamanlis, now president, presiding and with Samaranch on hand as well. There Karamanlis reiterated his call for the Games to be based in Greece permanently, which even got some support from the governing PASOK party. The occasion was the European Athletics Championships, which I happened to attend in one of my first visits to Greece. They featured the great Sebastian Coe (who faded badly in the heat to finish fifth or so in the 1,500 meters, a race he won an Olympic gold in both 1980 and 1984). Successful international Games in a brand-new arena already christened «The Olympic Stadium,» held at a time when the Olympic past offered more solace than those in a troubled present; the seed was clearly planted. The idea of Games permanently in Greece died a noble failure, but from the ashes arose the next best thing, a «regular» bid from Athens for the rotating Games. In 1984, Greece fought Los Angeles over commercialization of the torch relay, and two years later, a (disastrously government-run) effort was formed to put in a bid for the 1996 Games. In 1990 that bid came to a crashing halt at an IOC session in Tokyo. The defeat was a bitter pill, with Greece bemoaning the sellout of Olympic values to commercialism, and even petulantly threatening to boycott Atlanta. Happily that never transpired, and Greece (hardly less happily) watched as Atlanta’s effort was beset by technical glitches, loss of spirit and a mysterious bomb. This, in turn, led to a new push by Greece to secure the 2004 Games based not (only) on historical but modern merit. In this way, two decades of hopes repeatedly born, dashed, and renewed suddenly come together.

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