It’s cool to be Greek, once again

Thanks to the Athens Olympics, Greece has made an unexpected jump from a tourism-industrial complex to a cultural-industrial complex. The Games provided an excellent opportunity for improvements to the Greek capital’s infrastructure, and they contributed to the metamorphosis of Athens, which has been transformed into a modern city with the Ancients accessible everywhere. Thanks to a series of vast works, Athens now boasts a modern and effective transportation network. With a new metro (many stations display antiquities discovered during the excavations), a new tram system, a light railway, a new airport, renovated museums, new art galleries, pedestrian walks and the Athens Concert Hall, Athens has taken its place among the most advanced world capitals. After so many years, it’s cool to be Greek again. This is not the Athens of «Zorba the Greek,» nor is it the red-light district of Piraeus so lovingly filmed in «Never on Sunday.» There’s no going back to the 1950s and ’60s. Those were the days of happy Greeks full of optimism about their future. Now are the days of cool Greeks who know how to surprise the world, and maybe themselves, and who have shown they can undertake a worldwide multicultural and sporting event, and do it with class. Visitors to Athens met self-disciplined Greeks, whose hospitality was genuinely friendly, displaying a generous spirit, helping their guests to thoroughly enjoy the Games and the city. Their extraordinary knowledge of foreign languages made them especially helpful to foreign visitors – after all, they even have a word for hosting foreigners: philoxenia – and they showed they are ready to turn the page. It’s as though euphoria has permanently descended on the city. Six weeks after the Olympics, Athenians are still polite to each other and still take care not to litter… anywhere. Even stray dogs are happier, though fewer in number. They are back in the streets of Athens, neutered, well fed, bathed and healthier. Athens offered the world unique and unforgettable Games on a human scale, focused on the Olympic ideals that unite the whole world: the pursuit of personal excellence through peaceful competition. The Hellenes’ achievement has been to give the world an Olympics of which they are proud and to provide profound pleasure to all spectators – those in Athens and those watching via TV. If the rest of the world had been able to realize this during the months before the Games, there wouldn’t be any need for an apology from The London Times, CNN, The San Jose Mercury and The Washington Post. The Boston Globe, to its credit, did not join the chorus of Cassandras who rushed to condemn Athens for not being «secure» or «ready.» For some reason, The New York Times was hell-bent on demeaning Athens for its security system, even though Athens had the largest, most comprehensive and best-funded security system in Olympic history. And the system worked! Moreover, the magical part was that no one felt invaded by the marvelous security people, who themselves were cool. The media were mocking, dismissive and flat-out wrong. Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, former Prime Minister Costas Simitis, and Athens 2004 Organizing Committee President Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki said it again and again: «The Games will take place. Greece will give a unique answer to those who dared to cast doubts on its ability to finish the projects.» OK, the swimming stadium had no roof. How many Olympic cities have had an Olympic stadium with a roof? None. Maybe that’s what made Michael Phelps say, «It’s cool to be in Athens.» Greeks are cool again. The 50,000 volunteers of the Games were proud Hellenes whose smiles were an extension of their souls. They are cool because instead of the daily traffic anarchy, there is order in the streets of Athens. Drivers leave their cars at home and take advantage of the new, extended mass transport system. The daily grind has been replaced by politeness and enthusiasm. Greeks did everything they could to keep each visitor happy. Now the Athenians are telling the world that the Games were not a parenthesis in their daily life, but a synthesis of body and mind, of soul and spirit, of energy and vision. Because of the Athens Olympics, a new Greece is emerging: looking forward, and ready to embrace the realities and challenges of the 21st century. (1) Dino Siotis is the Press and Communication Office director at the Consulate General of Greece in Boston and editor of MondoGreco. He can be reached at [email protected]