History’s overhang meets the challenge of the present in contemporary Greece

For the hosts, these Games reflect two weighty themes: the present and the past. No country can match Greece’s overall Olympics legacy, although France – excavators of Delphi, home of modern Olympics founder Pierre de Coubertin, and host to two previous Summer Games already (in Paris), and aiming for a third in 2012 – might have some argument with that. The historical backdrop to the Athens Games, with «welcome home» signs everywhere, is impossible to miss, even if it is turned into a pat phrase for a mass audience. Greece’s preparations have been a strange combination of time-expansion and time-compression. From the start, Greece has drawn, rightly if perhaps overstatedly, on its Olympic past. The Games at Olympia were the premiere athletic and even political gathering place for the Greek world. Olympia is not Athens, of course; it’s a four-hour drive west, although the decision to locate the shot-put event there (for women as well as men) has helped bridge this awkward gap a bit. Insofar as there is continuity between ancient and modern Greece, and between the ancient and modern Games – issues still fought over in academic and other circles – the Greeks can plausibly claim the Games’ original heritage as their own. Revival reviewed Greece’s role in the 19th century Olympic revival built on those foundations, although it is only now getting its due. And while this is the second time Athens has hosted an official Games, it also hosted the Olympic-standard Intercalary Games of 1906. Athens has utilized the poignant symbol of 1896 – an informal but memorable get-together involving fewer than 300 genuinely amateur athletes – as an example of the supposed purity of the Olympic origins. Fresh contact with Greek air and soil will renew the Olympic spirit, it is said; failing that, the scenery at least provides a moving and spectacular backdrop. And apart from the Games, Greece has succeeded, over time, in drawing Olympic symbolism and even infrastructure back to the national breast: the torch relay; the lead-off position in the parade of athletes; the International Olympic Academy; and an office of the Olympic Truce Center. For all the historical allusions, some elements of this past remain understated. Olympia gets most of the credit, but three other Games also qualified as «Panhellenic,» those at Nemea, Corinth, and Delphi. Athens, too, hosted the quadrennial Great Panathenaic Festival which involved not just athletics but sailing events, equestrian sports, and even a torch relay race. And the 1906 Games of Athens deserve a lot more attention than they usually get for moving the Olympic movement beyond its opening-decade follies. The present is now It is precisely because of this powerful legacy that these Games have also emphasized modernity so strongly, to show that Greek infrastructure and technological capabilities are worthy additions to its ancient monuments. This was the great lesson of the failure to gain the Centennial Games of 1996, which were claimed on the basis of heritage alone. Now, this veritable one-two punch is even reflected in the country’s recent sporting successes. Greece’s medalists of recent Games have come both from elemental or age-old sports, like weightlifting, wrestling and running, but also from newfangled ones like tae kwon do, windsurfing, and rhythmic gymnastics. Most people regard the seven-year preparatory arc as years of deep complacency followed by a huge last-minute rush. The reality was a lot more complicated, as the designated hosts managed to turn a humdrum building schedule into a major international drama. And like most productions, what was going on behind the scenes was more significant than what was visible. In 1997, Greece culminated its bid effort by winning over Rome, Stockholm and Cape Town. Undoubtedly there was a period of sitting on its laurels. Not only had Greece won its bid; it had also just successfully hosted the World Athletics Championships. Suddenly Greece was no longer pushing the world to accept its merits; it was being pushed by the world to keep its promises. The bid committee chairman, Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, departed the scene while the government had its focus elsewhere, specifically on the push toward joining the European Monetary Union and, eventually, in 2002, the single currency, the euro. On this issue almost alone, Costas Simitis’s PASOK party snatched victory from the jaws of defeat in spring 2000, but in doing so nearly lost Greece its Olympics chance. An increasingly worried IOC, under Juan Antonio Samaranch, soon delivered its first «yellow light» reprimand to Athens (this was later interpreted as a «yellow-card» warning, which was not his choice of metaphor). Yet the IOC itself was fighting a rearguard battle against corruption in its ranks, over payoffs for the Salt Lake City Winter Games and allegations involving prior Olympiads as well. The long-serving Samaranch was still in office, with his eventual successor, Dr Rogge, overseeing the Athens bid while hoping to replace him. This combination may have compromised both domestic and international oversight of preparations at a particularly awkward time, compounding Athens’s own unfathomable slackness. A tight fit As many know, this blow to the national ego plus the successful Sydney Games kicked the Greek Olympic effort into higher gear. What fewer know is that the Greek effort, already compressed from seven years to half that, actually expanded in its remit. The planners got bolder, not least because the government underwriting the effort had a double economic and political success to crow about. Whereas the original bid file had stressed that 72 percent of the needed facilities were in place, this was hugely optimistic. Existing facilities required thorough overhaul, some transport systems (like the tram) were speeded up under pressure, and Calatrava was brought in to provide a signature look. Permanent venues were built where the IOC had pled for temporary ones. Hence the Big Push in 2001-04, in which time (in the form of history), long Greece’s biggest ally and best Olympic selling point, became (in the form of the calendar) its biggest enemy to overcome. And ironically, despite the passage of time, the lost years 1997-2000 cannot be so easily forgiven and forgotten. Because of them, the whole effort was far more difficult and expensive, though also impressive, than otherwise. They almost loom larger, not smaller, because of what they wrought. And the rush to finish shoved aside much of the promised environmental innovation. Landscaping was an afterthought and greenery a luxury compared to the steamrollers and concrete mixers, and security imperatives dictated by September 11, 2001. The main post-Games challenge to Greece’s leadership will be economic and environmental in nature. Though parts of the preparatory effort have been international, especially in security, all hats must be off to the Greeks themselves, who under two different parties in government and, since 2000, under the spirited leadership of chief organizer Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, managed it despite a torrent of international criticism and withering doubt. The Greeks have shown, again, that they can work with the best of them. Now it’s their time to bring it off with their renowned panache. The Games? Bring ’em on.