Concerns for ‘the day after’

It is so very tempting, entering this third and final weekend of the Summer Olympics that seem to have begun a lifetime ago and which many said would have no life at all, to begin rounding up this unique experience that’s rapidly counting down. That’s something for the inner mind but not yet for outer consumption. The Games have produced a blizzard of images, but like a snowstorm, it’s difficult to single out snowflakes and there’s a changed scene afterward. There will be plenty of time for postmortems, though we still have neither a «post» nor a «mortem» since the Games are still very much alive and will be until early Monday. For many athletes it boils down to this weekend of finals. Races, bouts, games and medals remain to be decided; joy, relief and sorrow to be experienced, and sweat to be expended by teams and individuals. And this just covers the Olympics’ first, better-known, half; the Paralympics come next month, and plans for that are much less precise. We’re far from done. As the Salt Lake City Winter Games of 2002 showed, even a well-organized event can steam along nicely until the last days only to start breaking down; in that case, mounting drug disqualifications and a destructive judging scandal cast a late shadow. It’s not over until the last athlete has left, and the accumulated fatigue of the past two non-stop weeks, following a summer full of preparatory tension, is not the ideal basis for a smooth or error-free ending. After all, the Athens Games opened in a bewildering combination of triumph and despair, an exquisite opening ceremony that helped counterbalance the fallout from the Games-eve drugs evasion case of Katerina Thanou and Costas Kenteris. A lot can happen in 48 hours; patience and fortitude are still required, not least with a full moon at tomorrow night’s closing ceremonies to illuminate (or spook) the proceedings a little more. Summary writ small Still, much can be said by way of preliminary conclusion. Greeks proved to be a lot more flexible, more willing to suspend normal habits, more willing to forget about the family car, follow the new rules, and indeed come out to the Games more than many observers expected. The fears of Athens simply not being ready, or city chaos even if it was, never materialized. Athens was calmer, with a better spirit, than it almost ever is. Traffic moved fairly smoothly; people respected Olympic lanes; buses came on time; nobody missed a start because of tie-ups (yet, anyway). The operational side of the Games has steamed along more smoothly than most outsiders dared imagine. International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge canceled the last meetings of his monitoring committee because there was little to do, though it wouldn’t take much to convene again. The IOC’s good guy/bad guy monitor all these years, Denis Oswald, was out watching events, as was Athens 2004 chief Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki. We, and possibly they, expected a bunker mentality; the reality was more like a sports holiday. The big news was all that did not happen, the problems that did not materialize but were braced for. The problems that did – principally doping – were already known. One problem did occur with the old ISAP train line: passengers returning to the north from the Olympic complex had to trek to the new station of Nerantziotissa on foot, as Irini station was closed in that direction. Even locals were offering cold water to hot and angry walkers. Reaching the Games already involves a lot of walking, and this made matters worse. Taxis did not always help; plenty of people got overcharged and the «Olympic taxi» designation was very generously interpreted. Athens and Greece have proved they can handle demands of such a huge, precision-based event, and do it with style. Showing up the doubters has unquestionably had its benefit. Creating a huge work force of volunteers, and making it work well, was, to my mind, one of these Games’ greatest successes in a society with almost no volunteerist tradition. And many of the thousands working for Athens 2004, often criticized for hopping aboard a gravy train, have worked for years only to have to spent their Olympics in front of computer terminals and at help desks, seeing little if anything for themselves. Some questions It’s far too early for all the answers, but not for some of the big questions. Will Athenians come out again and support the Paralympics as they have the Games, or will post-Olympics fatigue make them an afterthought? Will all the new venues around the city find viable post-Games use that balances financial viability with public need? How will Greeks respond to the economic pressures created by Olympics spending and a summer holiday lost due to longer work hours? Will the brand-new transport network maintain both high demand and ample services, or will old habits re-emerge? Will the coming debate over the longer-term consequences be marked by good will or by ill will? Some of the bigger questions, in fact, revolve around the Olympics themselves. The biggest is the ever-amplifying problem of drugs, and combating the next generation of hormones and growth-enhancers. A record number of athletes were disqualified at these Games. Another is judging, which produced some bizarre scenes at the pool, with the temporary disqualification of 200-meter backstroke winner Aaron Piersol before his gold medal was reinstated, and in the gymnastics hall, where the federation admitted to a scoring error that gave Paul Hamm a gold medal, yet lacked the power to do more than pressure Hamm to give it up after the hard-done-by Koreans strenuously (and rightfully) protested. A third is the problem of «gigantism,» in which many sports mired in minor status cling to the IOC’s coattails because of the exposure and money it brings. And yet, the newer sports are not the burden; the triathlon has been more successful than many believed, while beach volleyball was a huge success in Athens. It may be irreverent, but it may be the Olympics future. ‘The question, perhaps, is not which cities can handle the Olympics, but rather, why should we expect any single city, anywhere, to handle such a huge thing? Beijing 2008 looms as a far bigger test even than Athens, which was forced by circumstance not to get too grandiose. But Beijing already has a budget several times that of Athens, and could turn the Games into a truly overblown spectacle that forces big changes. The cities pitching their case for 2012 should be looking carefully. These Games have been a chance for Greeks to be Greeks instead of partisans of the fragmented body politic they so often are. Most Greeks have felt chagrined or embarrassed at the Thanou-Kenteris controversy, thrilled over Fani Halkia’s stirring 400-meter triumph, pleasantly surprised over water polo success. Greece’s female athletes have generally outshown the men. Sport has again been a unifier, although it did have unpleasant moments when ire was directed against other teams. And the unity has extended further afield, as the Olympics, for all their compromises, can still bring people from all over into a common celebration. It is one of the oldest cliches, but there is a reason it is so old. Greece has become a bit more cosmopolitan with all the easy interaction of peoples right here in Athens. This can only be to the good. Audience size and ticket sales have proved a stubbornly persistent issue, where small Olympic crowds have been a public talking point. Unquestionably, there has been a huge discrepancy between events. Preliminaries in less-known sports often drew small crowds in the early days. Even the gymnastics finals were not full. But most venues I visited had healthy crowds, with both enthusiasm and knowledge running high. With such a rousing opening, growing interest, great sport, smooth operations, and a gloss of success, the Athens Games have proved, so far, to be a tonic. That’s probably a reliable indication that the finger-pointing and political gamesmanship will return; signs are it already is. And that’s probably the best reason not to look too far ahead just yet.

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