Olympic sites going to waste

A source of pride to the Greeks, the Athens 2004 Olympic Games were supposed to leave a legacy of top-notch venues that would help recoup the competition’s 13-billion-euro price tag. But two years later most of the state-funded arenas are closed, saddling the government with additional maintenance costs as it struggles to repay debts incurred to build them. Athens overcame construction delays to stage a spectacular Games, helping fuel a 5 percent rise in tourism in Greece in 2005, but has been slow to put Olympic infrastructure to use. «The success of the Games gave us a reputation boost… but we have been late in exploiting this heritage,» said George Drakopoulos, general manager of the Association of Greek Tourist Enterprises (SETE). He attributed this to «a combination of poor organization, poor imagination and the absence of a post-Games plan.» Out of over a dozen venues constructed for the Games, only three have been leased out so far: the Goudi badminton hall, the Galatsi table tennis and gymnastics hall, and the International Broadcasting Center (IBC), all located in the capital. Rented out for periods varying between 15 and 40 years, the venues will be converted into leisure and shopping centers earning the Greek state around 500 million euros (641 million dollars), said Spyros Kladas, the Culture Ministry’s official responsible for utilization of Olympic sites. Investors are likely to lease out another three venues by the end of the year, while the Markopoulo equestrian center southeast of the capital will soon be sold by tender for the creation of a golf course and a hotel. «Olympic Properties (the state company overseeing the venues’ post-Games management) only became operational after the Olympics, when it should have been created in 1997, alongside the Games organizing committee,» Kladas told AFP. Greece had to borrow heavily to ensure the Olympic venues were finished in time for the Games, helping to get the country in trouble with Brussels for exceeding public deficit limits for countries that use the euro. The government has since had to rein in spending, triggering widespread dissatisfaction, making the slow use of the Olympic sites even more glaring. Besides bringing in revenue, the lease of the three properties concluded thus far will save the state annual maintenance costs of 20 million euros, according to Olympic Properties chairman Christos Hadziemmanuil. But the company is still saddled with a handful of venues whose immediate exploitation seems unlikely. Two Olympic football stadiums in the towns of Patras and Volos, respectively in western and central Greece, are now deemed too large for local use. A shooting venue in Markopoulo is off-limits due to a legal dispute with the constructors, and the Schinias rowing course built in a wetlands is proving unusable due to environmental restrictions. Greece’s difficulties should provide a lesson to London as it prepares to host the 2012 Games. Last month Britain’s Independent daily reported that the overall cost could rise to 5 billion pounds (7.4 billion euros, 9.5 billion dollars) – more than twice the original estimate – under government plans for a wider regeneration of east London. Regeneration was something Greece also had in mind for 2004, but the results have yet to materialize. Organizers decided to build a weightlifting venue and a wrestling hall in two of Athens’s most depressed areas, Nikaia and Ano Liosia, in the hopes that they would boost local development. Nikaia has seen little use since 2004, and Ano Liosa has never reopened.