Athens Games, outside of Athens

Should the 2004 Olympics be a reason for Greece to build a road in Yugoslavia? This was one of the odder questions arising during Prime Minister Costas Simitis’s pre-Easter visit to Belgrade, when things like transport infrastructure, rather than civil war, were on the agenda. It emerged in connection with the 230-million-euro Balkan Reconstruction Plan, decided on earlier, but not signed during this visit because the necessary papers, for some reason, didn’t get delivered in time. Apparently, the northern neighbor wants Greece’s help in building their E10 motorway as an axis from Belgrade to FYROM (Skopje) and Thessaloniki, with the argument – logical but definitely canny – that it would facilitate the flow of Olympics visitors. Who says the Games are only about running, jumping, and throwing? That the Olympics have multiple and far-reaching effects is scarcely a matter of dispute. A worldwide phenomenon with a strongly localized impact each time they convene, the Games sometimes seem to have almost a split personality. They are among the most genuinely international of all representative institutions, at least if you consider them through the vaguely defined «Olympic movement» and not just the International Olympic Committee. And at the opposite end of the scale, it would take a blind, deaf and dumb resident of Athens not to conclude that, when it comes to 2004, the Games’ main impact is on this city alone. But there is a lot of open water and uncharted territory between the microcosm of Athens and the spinning globe. The Olympics pose a classic «level-of-analysis» problem; that is, the need to distinguish between elements, the apples and the oranges, while permitting a look at the overall scenario. In Olympics-speak, and in terms of geography, the Games have effects at four different levels: the localized one (Athens and Attica); the national one (Greece); the regional one (the Balkans, the Mediterranean and Europe); and the world or international one. The first and the last get the lion’s share of the coverage, interest and attention; the middle two, in sharp contrast, have tended to get lost in the shuffle so far. A national Games? If you live in Maroussi, in northern Athens near the Olympics complex, it is hard to escape from the Games, even at this stage. If, on the other hand, you happen to live in Kalamata, in the southern Peloponnese, the impact is not quite so obvious. How will the Games affect the rest of Greece outside the Attic basin? Do the Games really matter to the rest of Greece? And how can they be made to matter, by spreading the wealth or by sharing the burden? Perhaps Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos had this differentiation in mind as he announced the «Greece 2004» program this week, as a means of generating greater interest in the Games nationwide. Details remain scarce, but the intent is clear: to involve the other 6 million or so Greek citizens who won’t be directly affected by the preparations or the Games themselves, and which will require appeals to patriotism and weeks or months of physical relocation for non-Athenian volunteers. The Athens Games are, inevitably, also Greece’s Games; not just because Athens is the capital and predominant city, with 4-5 million residents (depending on how far out you count) out of 11 million or so in the country, but because the country itself has a relatively small population which is culturally more homogeneous than, say, America’s or China’s, 1996 and 2008 hosts, and is much smaller geographically than Australia, the 2000 hosts. This also means that a substantial chunk of the country’s territory will be utilized by the Olympics, notably in the still-perilous area of accommodation. Towns like Nafplion and Loutraki, and nearby islands will likely be prevailed upon to offer rooms to the Olympic hordes, who will commute to events. The Athens 2004 organizers have insisted from the beginning on a national, not just local effort, particularly in terms of citizen involvement through volunteerism. And naturally, inevitably, the Games will involve a national marketing campaign abroad, to capitalize on a literally once-in-a-lifetime event spotlighting the country and its culture (or selling it, depending on your perspective). Games all over Physically too, the Games will cover a lot of territory. Attica is a big and varied region, and events will range from mountain biking near Mt Parnitha to sailing at Aghios Cosmas near the old airport to show-jumping at Markopoulo, not far from the new airport, to rowing and canoeing at Schinias, on the site of (another) old airport and near Marathon. Even those wishing to escape Athens come August 2004 will have a hard time avoiding the Olympics completely; on the other hand, foreign visitors can get a taste of the Games without having to venture into a very crowded and hot capital city. Most football matches will take place outside Athens and Attica, at four different locations: at the Pancritico Stadium in Iraklion, Crete; at the Panpeloponnisiako Stadium in Patras; at the Panthessaliko Stadium in Volos (a new complex to have two stadiums); and at the Kaftantzoglio Stadium in Thessaloniki. In fact, these are the only locales in which competition will get under way even prior to the Opening Ceremonies. What’s more, two of these are new constructions (Volos, Iraklion) while the other two involve extensive renovation of existing venues (Patras, Thessaloniki). And these are not exactly one-room shacks; the Patras venue will hold 17,000 while the other three are designed for 20,000 or more spectators, two of which (stadiums, not spectators) will be built from scratch. Just one of those is comparable in capacity with three of the much smaller (and more controversial) new venues in and around Athens; the weightlifting hall at Nikaia, near Piraeus, will hold 5,000, the wrestling hall at Ano Liosia, 9,300, and the table tennis/rhythmic gymnastics hall at Galatsi, 6,000. A big bulk of the construction work for new venues is taking place far from Athens itself, giving a boost to the local economies, a headache to local residents, and promising stadiums as post-Olympics monuments in other metropolitan areas. All along, there was a strong case for distributing many other events outside the congested capital; for example, the controversies that long dogged the canoeing and rowing venue at Schinias could have been dealt with by transferring the whole operation to Lake Yliki, north of Athens, as many (and not just archaeologists and environmentalist groups) advocated. As it was, the slalom events were shifted from Rizari to Hellenikon, the site of the old airport, which now awaits (delayed) construction. And further afield Apart from seeing the Olympics as events for cities or countries, they are frequently seen in regional terms. Mexico City (1968) was a groundbreaker, as the first in Latin America and in a so-called Third World country. Tokyo in 1964 was the first genuinely Asian Games, Melbourne (1956) the first in the southern hemisphere, and Cape Town’s (admittedly so-so) bid for 2008 drew much interest as the first African attempt. The torch relay for Athens 2004 will touch Africa for the first time. Though most Greeks might not wish to conceive of them in this way, these Games are also the first ever in the greater Balkans region, apart from the 1984 Winter Games in Sarajevo. They could serve as a positive focal point for Balkan reconstruction, physical and moral alike. However, they could also prove to be a huge source of headaches for Greek border police, as foreigners flocking to the Olympics could be an excuse for various bad elements to slip in through the net from neighboring places (e.g. Kosovo, Albania, Bulgaria). It raises a potential avalanche of problems relating to visas and entry into the country, which not long ago joined the Schengen passport-free zone of the EU. If the question of allowing visa-free travel for the relatively circumscribed «Olympic family» has proved problematic, that of potential Balkan visitors arriving at Greece’s borders by crowded bus will be infinitely harder. And how will they all be accommodated if and when they do get through? It would not hard to conjure up calamitous scenarios for anyone so inclined. The Olympics inevitably involve a huge, if temporary, human influx, and that’s the neighborhood Greece lives in. It is little wonder that official Greece has responded so enthusiastically to a recent proposal for the creation of an EU border police force. Who knows, the 2004 Games might arise as the first occasion for its use. Pieces of the pie There is also plenty of evidence that other neighboring countries are ogling the Olympics pie. Bulgaria is marketing its facilities for use by athletes wanting to train in Greek-like (hot and dry, for the uninitiated) summer conditions. Cyprus has already agreed to host British athletes wanting to duplicate Greece’s physical environment but perhaps wanting a more familiar linguistic environment. Small Turkish companies apparently are angling for increased Games-related, trans-Aegean business contacts. Spillover tourist visits and other, more intangible results in cooperative (or competitive) terms could also accrue. The Games will have plenty of effects outside Athens, whether looked at as a source of opportunity or as a problem. Athens won’t be just Athens come 2004.