Capital’s new face
One of the great appeals of a Greek Olympics was that it offered the glamour of the old: an historical backdrop to contemporary sport, and a cultural legacy inextricably bound up with the Games. Coming home may have given the International Olympic Committee ulcers, but it also gave the whole operation an unmatchable gravitas. History oozes from every street corner in central Athens, a city that will forever carry the mantle of first modern Olympic city. And today, the shot-put event carries modern Olympic sport back to its very origins in Olympia (though it wasn’t competed there originally). Even younger athletes seem aware of these ties to the past; 19-year-old American swimmer Michael Phelps, otherwise fixated on his quest for contemporary Olympic greatness, paid (brief) homage to Greece’s Olympics past in a press conference. But in a curious twist, the same event that has been transporting visitors into a glamorized past is hurtling modern-day Athenians into their future. For those already living here and well inured to the history all around them, these Olympics are all about coping with and marveling at what is a startlingly and strikingly new city, at least in terms of infrastructure and technology. Lifelong residents (perhaps especially them) are still finding their way through a maze of roads, interconnections and rail systems that have come on line over the past month. Driving is a new challenge even without blocked-off Olympic lanes; and riding the rails isn’t easy with four systems now in operation (a metro, the old electric railway, or ISAP, line, the tram, and a suburban railway system), only one of which existed five years ago. The breaking-in process isn’t over, and the system, or at least much of it, will be around for generations. Ring around Athens Monday brought a good sense of this. I spent it soaked to the gills in the Games yet floating on their perimeter, never once venturing into an actual venue (though not for want of trying; swimming is a very hot ticket, even with accreditation). Dashing around the city, catching glimpses of competitions on screens around the city, poring over results of sports known and unfamiliar, talking to volunteers and journalists was a daylong exercise in being at the Olympics without being fully in them – at once stimulating, frustrating and fascinating. Much of the day was spent in transit, and the remarkable thing was how well it flowed for something still so raw. I managed to make an entire loop around the city on brand-new wheels, rails, grooves and asphalt. Special media buses originate in a special parking lot fronting the International Broadcast Center (itself a brand-new facility). Air-conditioned coaches go to various venues; my destination was the Faliron hub, near the beach volleyball venue. We passed the overhauled Olympic complex, along the newly paved Spyrou Loui Avenue, and over to the new ring road, the Attiki Odos. Heading southwest, we crossed over to another freeway, the still newer Kifissou Avenue extension. This road, built right over the Kifissos River, took us due south to the sea in no time, through the (brand-new) spaghetti junction near the Peace and Friendship Stadium, and back along the widened coastal road. We circled again into a special lane to a newly carved-out, spacious open-air bus terminal right on the grounds of the old hippodrome at the start of Syngrou Avenue. Deposited there, I crossed over to the (brand-new) tramlines for a ride back toward Piraeus. The tram was packed with tourists and ticket-holders, going in both directions, and special guards and volunteers were everywhere to answer any questions. The first tram came in about two minutes; within five I was at my stop. Later in the afternoon, I returned north via the other system, the old ISAP electric railway (Metro Line 1), which at Faliron boasts a brand-new and airy station, situated adjacent to the equally brand-new Karaiskaki Stadium. Each of the old, decrepit stations along the line has been renovated, while the old cars have been replaced. I disembarked at (yet another brand-new) station, Nerantziotissa, which serves the Olympic complex. From there it was a short hike back to the (just opened) press center. None of this was possible five years ago, or even three months ago. And I didn’t even utilize the suburban railway that goes to the airport, just cranked up three weeks ago. Some of these services are new but temporary for the Games, but much else is new and permanent. And it is not just in Athens; other cities have spiffed themselves up too. Olympics visitors will remember the sports venues and ancient monuments, but this dizzying new transport system is the most striking result of the entire effort. There’s no way for occasional visitors to compare it with the Athens of old; most journalists on the bus were either bored, working or asleep. Yet the Olympics revolution will continue to reverberate in Athens long after the venues fall silent.