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An Olympic riddle: Were they too good for their own good?

Three years of writing about them and a month of living with them has left the Olympic Games something of a blur in my enervated brain cells. Any attempt at summarizing the whole experience seems further handicapped by the fact that «the Games» remain in the plural rather than singular; they were a kaleidoscope of happenings rather than the single, happily successful event that the world, along with Greece, is celebrating in their heady wake. Games that started with the shakes ended on a high. And how quickly they came and went. All the usual and unusual sights of great sport were there: tragedy and triumph side by side; tearful winners and tight-lipped «also-rans»; a mass of humanity and visions of lone athletes doing their thing on the ground, in the air, under water. These will remain. Now comes a curious pause or interregnum as life returns to what passes for normal. As of midweek, the banners were still up but barriers coming down; Olympic lanes still marked off but no longer sacrosanct; the press center still there, but its information system consigned to oblivion; a few uniformed volunteers stalking the streets; the dirigible still humming in Athenian skies; some roads still closed off, others reopened. Only it can’t be a full reversion given the Paralympics in two weeks’ time. Aside from defying expectations of failure, these Games also refused to fall into the trap of cliche – always a possibility in a country that reveres its ancient culture. But Ancient Greece kept itself vital partly by being willing to laugh at or even ridicule itself, healthily and mercilessly. The best parts were those that made fun or were truly different: the «workers» banging in the last nails in an opening-ceremony skit; the anthems sung by choir rather than by the usual brass band; the Gypsy fruit sellers at the closing. Overall, the Games provided a fresh face and a badly needed boost for the country at an important juncture. An odd problem has cropped up after them: Did they create unfulfillable expectations at home and abroad? Were they too successful? Plenty of friends Greece has run the gamut of international opinion in 2004. Before August, it was the brunt of jokes about painting lines on the track ahead of sprinters, or else the target of unbridled criticism about security. This week, after a virtually error- if not scandal-free 17 days, it has basked in unanimously positive public opinion. Major newspapers abroad have raved about them; international websites have even printed mea culpas, although «We were wrong» doesn’t resonate quite the same as «I was wrong.» Still, isn’t it sweet to get the last laugh? The country has plenty of friends now. That’s nice, but just as the earlier sniping can now be discounted, so too can any excessive flattery. Congratulations rolling in can, of course, be heady stuff, but also something to beware of. For many of these newfound friends were distinctly unfriendly in their assessments of preparations, and of the country making them. The conversion is just a bit too easy, too flip. Many of those who a month or two ago were saying Greece wasn’t up to the job now suddenly want them to do it all over again. As any teenager can tell you, popularity is a fleeting thing, and those most responsible for bringing about this summer’s extraordinary bang of a Games, principally both past and present governments, the Athens Municipality, and the Athens 2004 organizing committee, might do well to take it all with a grain of salt and not let it go to their collective heads. A job well done can bring its own satisfaction. No permanence One of the stranger, if perhaps predictable, suggestions of the week, bandied about in various corners, has been for Greece to be handed the Games on a permanent basis. This idea is superficially and even romantically appealing, but it also avoids the realities of the modern Olympics, Greece, economics, and history. The idea overlooks two basic and inconvenient facts. First, the Athens Games succeeded so brilliantly because they were a one-off happening, not a regular thing; they were extraordinary and not ordinary. But if they became part of the scenery, the calendar, and the national budget, they would quickly be resented. The first time something went seriously wrong, which would also be bound to happen (the gods are not always smiling), the world would come to regret its choice. Second, the IOC, which happens to run the Olympic movement, has already assigned the 2008 Olympics, and will be picking the 2012 host within the year. Athens would be queuing up for 2016 at the earliest. And anybody who thinks the IOC would want to return to Greece anytime soon is kidding themselves. It would probably take a devastating tragedy – rather than merely a successful Games – to compel the IOC to even consider altering its rotating-city formula (which may not be to everyone’s liking but has cities worldwide fighting tooth and nail to host them) and assigning them to Greece alone. Furthermore, the notion confuses a problem with its solution. Just because you identify a real concern (post-Games use of facilities that prevents wastage) doesn’t mean the easiest answer (repeating the effort) has any merit. It doesn’t, because it can never be the same again. It is all a bit like a party guest who first refuses to taste a mystery dish cooked up by the host, then winds up eating two platefuls of the stuff after he decides he likes it after all. That leads to only one thing: indigestion. Too much of a good thing is almost never a good thing. Let Greece, and everybody else, digest the special Games of 2004 in peace. Past present History speaks to this issue as well. The 1896 Games were also an unexpected success, after a very late start, money problems, international doubts, disagreements with the IOC, domestic turmoil, and a change of government right in the middle of preparations. It all came together and gave the modern Olympics an authentic lift, starting where the Games originated even while ensuring that they weren’t just an ancient revival but something entirely new. However, hubris then took over. At the closing banquet, King George (whose sons had helped organize it all) announced that Greece should be awarded the Olympics on a permanent basis. This created tensions with the IOC that lasted for years, until the 1906 anniversary or «Intercalary» Games. Greece also got hot-headed in its pursuit of foreign policy, ending up with a failed military campaign and an attempt on the king’s head. The Olympics, a pleasant anomaly in a tumultuous time, inflated the country’s own sense of what it was capable of and how many friends it could really count on. It’s a useful lesson. Were the 2004 Games a great but short-lived anomaly, or will they provide the basis for a new standard in Greece? It’s encouraging that officials decided to keep the expanded transport infrastructure, and that the unfinished environmental business will continue. In terms of behavior, it remains to be seen if people will act more civil because of the Olympics; that is always a hope after big international events, not always fulfilled. Yet you have to believe that all those who spent long hours doing boring jobs paid or unpaid, dealing with the public, will take away a better attitude that could spill over more widely. It takes more than a successful Olympics to give genuinely new direction to a country. At the same time, they can steer things in a certain way, or solidify ongoing trends. Korea, for example, strengthened its democratic roots with the Games of 1988. It is too soon to know where these will take Greece, but they do provide a solid basis of better infrastructure, international good will and visibility that can be used, with enough vision, in some powerful and enduring ways. Equally, it could all be frittered away, or sink along with the heavy weight of debt. The operative point is that it remains a choice of whether and how to capitalize on them. At least Greece now has that choice. And for that, it has itself to thank.