Shifting the focus of the Olympics

After a summer lull that followed the election of a new International Olympic Committee president in July, the Olympic movement is suddenly all aflutter, shaken out of its holiday-induced torpor by the cataclysmic attacks on New York and Washington like a bird’s nest scattered by a particularly vicious and unexpected autumn hurricane. The Olympic Games may have changed relatively little, or they may have changed utterly, as a result of those events. Just how decisively their focus has been altered will be seen soon enough. This week the executive board of the International Olympic Committee met for a three-day session at Lausanne to discuss (what else?) Olympics security issues. Most of that time, according to reports, was devoted to something even more immediate than Athens 2004, namely the Winter Games at Salt Lake City that open less than five months from now, and in a national (US) setting which, in itself, suddenly and inevitably adds further to the IOC’s worries. Also on Tuesday, Greece’s interministerial committee overseeing the Athens 2004 Games met to look at Olympics-related security issues from this end. And less than a week from now, the big boys from the IOC, namely new President Jacques Rogge and Denis Oswald, who is the new overseer of the Athens Games, will be in town for the first time since the IOC’s change of guard last summer to check on progress. In such extraordinary world circumstances, where uncertainty has suddenly emerged as a central factor in, and fact of, life, security preparations designed to counter the feelings of exposure that will now accompany those traveling to and attending major public events like an unwelcome tagalong companion have clearly taken center stage. Yet despite the new sense of urgency, it is still too early to undertake more than promises to beef up preparations even further and make more funds available. Nonetheless, some general trends are evident. One involves likely changes from the overall focus of the past few Olympics (notably Atlanta and Sydney, and Los Angeles before that), in which a substantial portion of the Games’ cost had shifted from the public to the private sector. This is now likely to shift back somewhat; international terrorism may have unintentionally awakened J.M. Keynes’s ghost. For all the privatization craze of the last 15 years, safety and security issues are still very much public-sector concerns. We already see evidence of their heightened importance in relation to the Salt Lake Games; their organizing chairman, Mitt Romney, at least enjoyed felicitous timing when he appeared on Capitol Hill on Monday, Sept. 10, to ask the US Congress for extra security-related funding ($12.7 million to beef up the contingent of 1,400 troops already earmarked). Needless to say, he got it. Similarly, for Athens, any additional security measures will be funded from government resources (they are already estimated to cost a whopping $650 million, a figure which will likely rise further, perhaps significantly so), and not from the corporate sponsors being recruited. Two old/new developments have almost certainly emerged in the wake of September 11. The first is that security issues have not only become more important relative to the overall panoply of concerns; they are no longer likely to be treated as separate issues at all, but will increasingly dictate developments in many other, previously unconnected realms. Ostensibly separate matters such as how to fit out the Olympic Village, stadium refurbishment, hotels for VIPs, local transport and the like, will all have to reflect a dramatic increase in safety considerations. It will be like a chain reaction or domino effect in which all Olympics projects will have to incorporate security and safety matters directly into their own planning. This will not come cheap; not only will the security detail cost more, but the other parts of the Games will likely cost more as well, as part of a broader knock-on effect. And these necessary but additional expenditures will come straight out of the Greek state budget – and at a particularly inauspicious moment, given the expected lowering of the GDP growth rate as a result of last week’s tragedy and EMU budgetary constraints. Furthermore (and adding unintentional insult to injury), the numbers of foreign visitors might conceivably be a lot lower, especially if there is a substantial longer-term (as opposed to near-term) negative impact on world tourism, which of course would directly affect the 2004 Games. None of it forms a pretty picture, even if three years is still a very long time for things to settle down. Secondly, the major escalation in safety concerns will inevitably increase, and highlight, international monitoring of Greece’s preparations. The IOC will undoubtedly be assuming an even higher profile in Games planning, both publicly and privately. The USA has also said it will be looking at them very closely, as will many other countries anxious to ensure that their athletic teams and other visitors are safe during their arrival, stay, and departure from Greece. What this may also mean is that issues of control – which from time to time have already muddied the preparatory waters, for example between Athens 2004 and the government and especially its Culture Ministry, which is also responsible for sport – may re-emerge. So far such turf battles have been mainly domestic in nature, but new ones may develop at the international level, between Greece and those outsiders which either have a legitimate right (the IOC) to oversee what Greece is doing to protect visiting contingents, or a clear self-interest (other countries) in doing so. Whether this will become a serious bone of contention is anybody’s guess, but the potential for tensions, even within the overriding common goal of a safe Games, is clear enough. Put the two together, and you have an interesting new dynamic in the making. Greece will likely have to foot an even higher Olympics bill, even as it faces the possibility of fewer visitors to and lower revenues from the Games. And these less favorable economic circumstances may be compounded by potentially uncomfortable levels of pressure from outside. That all this may be happening because of developments having little to do with either Greece or the Olympics themselves offers scant comfort in this sobering new environment. At least there is a little more comfort in knowing that everyone is facing the same scenario, if not quite in the same way. In Zilce’s main square, soldiers and police reserves chatted idly as armored cars patrolled and a dozen or so trucks filled with paramilitaries waited for the roads to be cleared. The reserve units have to go, admitted an army officer. They will be replaced by the anti-terrorist police, the Tigers, and elite soldiers called the Wolves, he said. Some 150 military personnel will remain to keep the peace among the spots of ethnic groups on this leopard-skin piece of land.