NEWS

Impressions rule as Olympics roadshow comes to town

This week Greece got its first, if rather brief, look at Jacques Rogge, already a familiar face in Athens, in his new capacity as International Olympic Committee president. He was in town for the day on Wednesday to consult, confer with, and cajole all involved to keep the Games’ preparations on track. He also came to introduce his successor as the nuts-and-bolts head of the IOC’s Coordination Commission, Denis Oswald, who stayed behind a bit longer to see whether the bulldozers were finally moving dirt and if people generally were doing what they were supposed to be doing. One of the best things about this week’s gathering of Olympics officials and interested parties, both Greek and foreign, is that it wasn’t really in Athens at all, but in the seaside suburb of Vouliagmeni. The only trouble (apart from its distance from town) was that in such a sublime spot, with late September providing outrageously beautiful weather, it was hard to focus on much of anything apart from the azure sea encircling the peninsula and the pine-clad hills of the adjacent landscape, under a canopy of cloudless, blue sky. From an image-y point of view, it was an inspired move to put the IOC visitors up in such a rarefied locale, which would make a terrific vantage point from which to watch Nikos Kaklamanakis win a second windsurfing gold. The three-day gathering, of course, was not just about enjoying nice views from the veranda, but about the serious work of planning, planning, and planning some more for a 16-day operation that, by every indication, will be regimented down to its last detail – save, one hopes, for the competitive outcomes. Few things are being left to chance in this, the biggest planning operation that Greece has ever seen or is likely to see again. And far from nodding off in deck chairs, those involved were very much at it, pacing nervously with cell phones, huddled in groups, and, in one or two cases, poring over huge, detailed maps of planned new venues. And most of the real work went on in committees, behind closed doors. It seemed an interesting combination of focused work, broad reflection, and studied image-making; of both style and substance. The lovely setting was also, undoubtedly, an indirect reminder that public relations – PR – remains king, even in the monarch-less Hellenic Republic. Or, put another way, a successful Olympics requires, even presupposes, good packaging. And that packaging must be prepared long before the Games themselves, in order to create a dynamic of positive expectations and counter the doomsayers. If everyone thinks they will be successful, they are more likely to be so, like learned optimism or something similar. There is nothing whatsoever wrong with that; generating positive expectations is part of the job of Athens 2004, and its media operation seems full of very nice and competent people. And image is perhaps even more crucial now that the world will be looking at the Athens Games to provide some relief from all the international tensions that exploded on September 11. Suddenly the Athens Games represent a potential healing balm for humanity, no longer known just for the struggles of a small country to stage a mammoth event. The operative archetype is no longer the Little Engine That Could, but a heroic David, slaying the Goliaths of fear and uncertainty, and promoting harmony between, rather than a clash of, civilizations. But even David needed good press. Being available is the thing Wednesday was a day of introductions and beginnings, as a press conference was held by the Big Three – Rogge, Oswald, and Athens 2004 President Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki. Press conferences are strange happenings, or so I found, having somehow missed the opportunity in the past to be enlightened at such events. They are important in their own way, yet staged and slightly glitzy and characterized by caution. I had expected a rough-and-tumble atmosphere full of reporters shouting out questions over a noisy din, but the reality was a little more prosaic. People come together, some information changes hands, and everyone goes home with something to show for the effort. Those on the dais breathe a sigh of relief at having fielded awkward questions and dodged verbal bullets; the questioners get the self-satisfaction of verbalizing whatever’s on their minds. And whereas academic-type conferences always seem to bring interminable questions designed mainly to show off the knowledge of the questioners, the ones Wednesday at least had the virtue of being short. Most of the questions (limited to general topics not specific to the Athens Games, which seemed rather restrictive) were answered by Rogge; mainly in English until his patience appeared to flag and he answered the last couple in his native French, as the slow-starting translators finally hit their stride. He is evidently a competent administrator and a skillful diplomat, on top of a career as a practicing surgeon; not, perhaps, the ideal first choice as a cheerleader, but it would be hard not to take his medical advice. It was a bit surprising to see him become curt with a couple of questioners, but it was more surprising to hear some decidedly uninspired questions being put to him, by people who supposedly cover the subject; things like whether he thought it was safe to fly (yes), whether the Games would be moved from Athens (no), and whether it was good that Greece has good relations with Arab countries (help). The important persons up front did quite well in keeping straight faces through the hourlong session, at which cameras of every possible variety and size seemed almost to outnumber those in attendance. Perhaps, as a colleague there suggested, such events are held mainly for show; what is important is merely the fact that they occur at all, to provide some limited dialogue and possibilities for exchange and to demonstrate mere presence. Everybody gets what they need out of them, in a minimal sort of way: TV stations their sound bites, print reporters their earnest quotes, and officials the appearance of accessibility. A bit dull but necessary would be a reasonable summary of the proceedings, especially as the overall message at this one – that security remains the top priority of the Games, not just in the three weeks since September 11 but over the three decades since the massacre at the 1972 Munich Olympics – was certainly reinforced by what was said. In that sense, it was far from a useless exercise. The key to holding a successful Olympics is information, Mrs. Angelopoulos-Daskalaki told Kathimerini English Edition with an earnestness that is hard to refute. The task of any sensible writer or reporter is to avoid the twin traps of getting caught up in the media juggernaut on the one hand, and being contrary (and thus tiresome) just for the sake of it, on the other. Walking softly but carrying a big pen, he or she must look carefully and recognize that perceptions, especially in such a huge public extravaganza, are scarcely less important than are the facts at hand; even security itself is subjective as well as objective in nature. The important thing is to not let the perception stray too far from the reality – which would be easy enough in such a dreamy spot.