Games in search of genuine spirit

A not-so-fine mist has settled over the preparations for the 2004 Olympic Games, and like most mists, it is easier to perceive its existence than it is to put your finger on its origins, measure its extent, or guess its eventual duration. It might lift with the morning light, burn off with the sun; or it might linger for hours, disrupting the day and people’s movements and throwing everyone into an undefined sense of unease. The trouble is that we’re now pushing well into the day, while the mist is getting heavier rather than dissipating. It is a cause for growing concern, not alarm, yet it is unanticipated, unfortunate, unnecessary, and for someone writing about it, unavoidable. At a fundamental level, hosting the Olympics requires just two things. One is a massive planning and construction effort, in Athens’s case, of venues not yet in place, of transport infrastructure, of security, and (who knows?) of yet more hotels in Attica. The other involves the human element, people getting involved. For years, ever since Athens was named host in late 1997, practically everyone has assumed that the construction part would be hard, and the human side easy. Few have proclaimed any special Greek genius for building buildings, at least since the Parthenon was thrown up at breathtaking pace between 447 and 432 BC. But many have sung songs to the Greek spirit, of how when their backs are to the wall or when they face a huge national endeavor the people respond with unmatched energy, dynamism, and single-minded purpose. And the Olympic Games, with their ancient origins, 1896 Athens revival, procession-leading Greek flag, and Greek claims to their heritage, were long assumed to be an unquestioned opportunity to express all that is good about the Greek spirit; a worldwide celebration of humanity and a chance to show what it means to be Greek, including the ability to rise to a big occasion. After all, the Olympic bid trumpeted a 99-percent approval rating among the Greek people. Surely, it was assumed, there will then be an outpouring of national effort to meet the tremendous challenge of hosting an Olympiad. The world was promised not a high-tech extravaganza, but Games on a human scale. Surely it would not take much to convince people to recognize their common interest and make an extra effort. Where, then, have all the flowers gone? Lost in the mist? Reversal of fortunes Up to six months ago, construction matters loomed hugely, while transport infrastructure and traffic problems still loom large. Last year seemed defined by wearisome delays, deadlines unmet, and very public hand-wringing by the International Olympic Committee. Everything seemed about to happen, yet was not quite happening, including the temporarily accommodated Athens 2004 committee, which just recently moved to its new, larger home in Nea Ionia which will serve as its headquarters until the Games are over. Yet now there is plenty of evidence of feverish activity: At Nikaia for the weightlifting arena; at Galatsi for the rhythmic gymnastics and table tennis venue; at Ano Liossia for the judo and wrestling venue; and at the Olympic Village in Thrakomakedones, which is now zooming ahead. And along the Faliron Delta near the curiously named Peace and Friendship Stadium, builders are super-busy, installing, it seems, a whole new peninsula, for beach volleyball and other events. Good thing the Council of State just gave its approval for that; I wouldn’t want to dismantle a peninsula, although it would be fun to watch others try. Yet «popular involvement» seems more a contradiction in terms than a description of reality. There is, of course, plenty of localized opposition to specific projects in people’s neighborhoods. And it is understandable that Faliron residents (for example) are worried that their coastline is being taken away from them, or that the proposed tram system will take up crucial road space and reduce access to the seashore. Indeed, if they didn’t complain or try to influence this development, then something would be truly wrong. Even so, such involvement is both negative by nature (in the sense of opposing rather than supporting something) and self-serving (in the sense of being involved only when immediate interests are affected). From the standpoint of selfless involvement in the Olympics, there is scant evidence of enthusiasm as yet. Disagreeing vs not caring There are many who simply don’t agree with hosting the Games out of principle, or who disparage the effort as a diversionary waste, or worse. I’m certainly not in that camp, though there are people I know and respect who are. These are just honest disagreements among people who care enough to think about such things. But it is getting harder to comprehend the anger of many Greeks when people outside Greece express cynicism about Greece’s ability to stage competent Games, given that all the infighting here concerning the Olympics is making it virtually impossible for outsiders to think anything else. The Games have long represented something sui generis; unique. Yet rather than Greeks rallying around the Games as any sort of higher purpose – pardon the hyperbole, but a collective «Yes» to something, a sort of peacetime mirror-image of the «Oxi» of October 28, 1940 – too many, especially with axes to grind, are sullying the entire effort by dragging it into the quagmire of everyday infighting. The Olympics are fast becoming just another excuse to bash each other politically, useful cannon fodder for the body politic, or else a way to make a quick mountain of euros. Whatever you may think of them, the Games are coming; and such a small country won’t pull them off without an outpouring of effort by many, not just those getting paid for it. Most still seem fairly clueless as to the scale of what’s coming, and it’s not all their fault; for example, details remain scanty regarding what, exactly, is expected of volunteers. It is perhaps the first time since Socrates strolled the Agora that Athens and Greece have had such an opportunity to shine in a peacetime endeavor. Yet without care, otherwise-preoccupied natives could blow the chance before that chance even arrives. What a pity a patchwork, thrown-together Olympics would be. It is not too late for people to get interested, excited, and involved. But the recent sight of Athens 2004 President Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki mustering volunteers in Cyprus (which is, of course, another country), or the government talking about deferring army entry in order to promote «volunteerism,» is not the best of omens. It will be a pity if the 60,000 volunteers required (out of 150,000 applicants needed; it being possible to be turned down even for unpaid legwork) come largely from outside Greece; and it will be a real mess if Greeks suddenly decide to get involved at the last minute but find all the volunteer positions filled by foreigners, and then complain that they were passed over in favor of opportunists and fly-by-nighters from elsewhere. August 2004 will bring plenty of declarations of the undying, universal Greek Olympic spirit. It would be nice to have a little better preview of it beforehand. How to tackle the problem

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