Greece’s Olympic moment arrives

The 2004 Olympic Games, for so long a glittering Land of Oz in the hazy distance of a long and winding yellow brick road, have finally arrived for a nervously expectant host country and world audience. They are set to explode into action in brilliant color on billions of television screens around the world with tonight’s staging of the opening ceremonies. These will launch the most thoroughly secured and scrutinized Olympics ever staged – a Games that many believed, until very recently, would never come off in the country of their founding and revival. Whatever transpires over the coming fortnight, these Games have already secured a big chunk of their legacy by defying dire prior predictions, convening confidently despite a cloud of international fear, and providing facilities for 202 national delegations. These are not just the biggest Olympics (by many measurements) but the most inclusive peacetime event ever staged. For the hosts, the physical legacy is already in place, in the form of a vast – and, just on cue, gloriously completed – regeneration project that has sharply upgraded the host city’s urban environment in a way built to last, while giving Greece a deserved shot of national pride after a job choppily but competently done. And in between this trying prologue and an uncertain epilogue comes an exhilarating and unpredictable main event involving a cast of athletes whose stories often mirror the collective Greek experience – rising to the occasion, often against heavily stacked odds. Two-way mirror This evening’s ceremonies are expected to feature a flooded stadium, statuary rising from the stadium bowels, and countless other reminders of Greece’s renowned physical attributes and cultural legacy. The three-and-a-half hour event – easily twice that counting getting in and out again – will give a thoroughly modern twist to an ancient culture for viewers and those lucky enough to have a seat in the ravamped Spyros Louis Stadium, now sporting the most famous new structure in the country, Santiago Calatrava’s spectacular partial roof. A 1 a.m. post-event press conference will explain the ceremony’s intricacies to the indefatigable. A few hours later, a 16-day orgy of 28 sports and 300 events will be under way in venues scattered across Attica, pursued by a media circus. The oddities that always come with the Games have already started, with Mexican journalists providing some early comic relief. Through it all, the world will be looking on Greece with slightly jaundiced eyes (via digital TV and the Internet) to see whether it will deliver them well and safely. In turn, Greek eyes will be lifted, at long last, above the construction detritus, lawsuits, delays and nagging doubts so closely identified with the preparatory years. They will be able to focus on competitions unfolding in state-of-the-art venues that Greece itself, sometimes despite itself, has delivered. All the cacophony may have produced a meeting of minds. The Olympics provide the broad umbrella under which top athletes of the world gather to compete in sport. For the rest of us, it offers not just a diversion from the everyday, but a periodic renewal of hopes for a better world – doping revelations aside. The latest example of this involved sprinter Coastas Kenteris’s significant no-show at a drugs test yesterday. This time around, instead of Greece reaching out to the world, the world is coming to Greece and to Athens – perhaps the only place where destiny, not just a fancy bid file followed by feverish construction, had a hand in delivering the Olympics. Most outside reactions to Athens’s sudden readiness have ranged from surprise to astonishment. Predictably, the media herd has shifted from vocal doubts to equally loud approval. But the only thing truly surprising has been that so many are so surprised. For the delays, bureaucratic blockages, and infighting, and the frantic final push, are both intrinsic parts of the Greek experience. They are two sides to a single coin, once a drachma and now a euro; age-old characteristics that were not about to change for anything as transient as an Olympic Games. Yet the process of preparing the Games has, itself, offered a rare chance to challenge those less exalted national practices and bring about glimpses of a new consciousness. Granted, for those less than familiar with Greece or the Greeks, this summer’s turnaround seemingly has little explanation short of intervention from the gods. But most Greeks, models of stoicism through it all, feel proud and vindicated, if worried about the eventual costs – but hardly astonished. For they know what they and their countrymen can do when their backs are to the wall. This was but the latest opportunity to demonstrate it. If the gods help those who help themselves, the final push was facilitated by a loosening of national purse strings in robust defiance of EU-mandated deficit management. It also benefited from the International Olympic Committee’s effective carrot-and-stick supervisory role as its president, Dr Jacques Rogge, prepared to preside over his first Summer Games. The main striking thing is that it all came together so smoothly this past month, creating the previously unthinkable: Games with reasonably high expectations. But don’t think for a minute that Greeks in every capacity are not under enormous, often self-inflicted pressure. Kenteris may be a prime example.

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