Making sport beautiful for 2004 Games

Judging from the vast array of pieces to the 2004 Olympics jigsaw puzzle, the sports themselves can seem submerged in a giant whirlpool of other concerns. Logistics, media, infrastructure, volunteers, and a thousand other details are all pressing, not least of which (after Salt Lake City’s traumatic experience of a major hot dog shortage during February’s Winter Games) involve food, like the need for enough souvlaki on hand to sate the visitors and athletes with authentic Greek cuisine. Live to eat, they say. Culture, broadly construed, is a pivotal element of these Games – not just as a supplementary feature but as an organic part of the whole framework. The biggest alternative attraction to the 2004 Games is the Cultural Olympiad (a subject for a future column), a Culture Ministry project now well under way which has already caught enough criticism in its huge trawling net of events to push Greece over its EU fisheries limit. Another aspect, one that bridges athleticism and culture, are the ongoing plans for beautifying Greece’s Olympic facilities and making the Games themselves an artistic event for the ages. Anybody can hold a track meet; what makes the Olympics different is not just the variety of sports but the setting in which they take place. And settings demand an aesthetic dimension. The non-sporting, artistic side of the Athens Games is likely to take on greater dimensions than have most recent Olympiads. Greece, with its complex history and rich cultural tradition, plainly has copious offerings outside of sport for the visitor, and, as a small country, it cannot draw the world’s athletes just on the strength of its sporting teams or facilities the way bigger countries can. And for Athens, hosting the Games runs parallel with – indeed is a direct stimulus to – major urban renewal and beautification plans. Of recent hosts, only Barcelona incorporated the Games into broader city plans to any like degree, and that city’s great changes are testimony to the power of such renewal schemes. To build up one must first tear down, and the 2004 renewal plans may be making the city worse off in the short run, but are expected to improve it eventually – even if, as Keynes (John Maynard) once said, in the long run we’re all dead. One such project is the Unification of Athens Archaeological Sites plan to create an archaeological park based on pedestrian zones around the Acropolis. Dionysiou Areopagitou Street, south of the Acropolis, has already been transformed almost beyond recognition. All this, in fact, started long ago, with the renovation of Plaka from its 1970s honky-tonk decay, and even further back, it was visualized by the city’s original architects, Cleanthes and Schaubert. All this (long overdue) work should be completed next year. Ceremonies and stadiums Less further along, but more critical to the Games themselves, are two projects involving intricate planning, lots of money, and double-overtime work for thousands between now and summer 2004: the opening and closing ceremonies, and the renovation of the Olympic complex itself. The former issue was decided two weeks ago with Athens 2004’s announcement that Dimitris Papaioannou, a choregrapher and pioneer of modern dance in Greece, will have overall responsibility for developing and implementing the ceremonies, which will draw the biggest television crowds and pull the highest ticket prices of the Games. By all accounts, an immensely talented artist and formidable organizer, he looks an inspired choice. He’ll also be on the right side of 40 even when the Games arrive; this nod toward youth indicates that the organizers want to put on a vibrant, energetic event, perhaps to underscore Greece’s dynamic, modern side in contrast to its more immobile summertime image of ancient stones and prone bodies roasting on beaches. Papaioannou also has a complete plan in hand already, a reassuring notion. This decision (made without a formal competition) must be disappointing for other hopefuls like Vangelis Papathanassiou, who choreographed the impressive opening ceremonies for the 1997 World Athletics Championships in the old Kallimarmaro Stadium. Vangelis’s mammoth «Mythodia» concert last year at the Temple of Olympian Zeus was the inaugural event of the Cultural Olympiad; and its huge, 1-billion-drachma (3-million-euro) price tag was widely criticized and may have cost him in this case. Then again, given the pressure involved and the chances for something to go awry on August 13, 2004, maybe he wasn’t so unlucky after all. Complex works More worrying at this point is the plan to renovate the Olympics Complex near Maroussi, the Games’ main focal point which is now aging after two decades of wear and tear. In some respects, this is a problem that slipped through the net, given that the Athens bid file stressed that the key facilities were already in place; back in 1997 few realized that concrete structures were not sufficient. Last year, Athens 2004 and the Culture Ministry chose Santiago Calatrava, a Spanish architect from Valencia, to redesign the complex. While internationally acclaimed for his dynamic designs and unquestionable capabilities (he even has an Olympics structure in Barcelona), the selection process was opaque and its outcome indicative of a shortage of Greek architects with international standing (maybe there’s a reason modern Athens looks as it does). Post-Franco Spain has emerged as a world center for modern design, indicated recently by the Guggenheim Art Museum in Bilbao and by Rafael Moneo’s bold plan to extend the Prado Museum in Madrid. Calatrava has plenty of national inspiration to draw on. Under his charge are the main stadium, velodrome (for cycling events), aquatic center (swimming and diving), tennis center, and the indoor hall, for basketball, as well as his redesign of the overall area. He has designed a footbridge at the Katehaki and Mesogeion junction, and the Nerantziotissa transport hub to be built for spectators near the complex. A sculpture intended to link ancient and modern Greek themes, and the Olympic cauldron for the opening ceremony, an Olympic Hill and a Wall of Nations are other elements. An agora will fuse the disparate areas into a common whole. Architecturally, his plans for the main stadium include use of suspended, arched roofs to partially cover the main stadium, completely cover the velodrome and grace the entrances to the complex. Curved steel and laminated glass will provide both aesthetic and functional use, shading spectators, while reminding them of the arch of a javelin thrower or long jumper; no prefabricated, would-be temples there. It all looks, at least on paper, strikingly like the Olympic site in Munich, 1972 hosts. Throw in lush new vegetation, decorative pools and running water, and you’ve got quite a little community in the making – a dream assignment, to be sure. At least in theory, for work has not yet begun; originally it was supposed to begin this month to allow timely completion. This week brought controversy with a report (in Kathimerini) that Calatrava was unhappy with the way things are going, fearful of massive cost increases by construction companies and dismayed over the lack of available expertise to carry out his grand plans. Its originally budgeted cost of under 200 million euros was, according to this report, to double or triple. Calatrava, however, issued a stern denial, saying the costs would be only «moderately higher» than the estimate due to uncontrollable market and technical matters, namely fluctuating steel prices and earthquake reinforcements. Given his pedigree this seems a rather lame explanation, considering that (a) any architect knows that metal prices fluctuate, and (b) everybody knows that Greece lies in an earthquake zone. Th reason that these sudden revelations will now add expense was not explained. Where there’s damage control there’s usually damage, like smoke and fire. It’s too late to find another designer or to train new engineers, so all we can do is hope the fears are overblown. And, of course, look forward to a stunning new complex two springs from now.

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Enter your information below to receive our weekly newsletters with the latest insights, opinion pieces and current events straight to your inbox.

By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.