Two peas in the Olympics pod: Artistry and sport compete for the top billing in 2004

Yesterday, you likely didn’t notice, was an anniversary of sorts: five years to the day when Athens was awarded the 2004 Summer Olympics. It (in 1997) was a landmark event, full of rowdy music, bright lights and cheering well into the warm night. And inevitably, it was a day of unsolemn, feather-preening promises that Greece would put on the biggest, baddest Olympics show ever. Thankfully, the promises were whittled down, as the realization of the huge costs and heavy burden, and the International Olympic Committee’s bare-faced warning to get on the ball sobered up the partygoers. Now every contingency is being factored in, except for one unimagined until this unseasonable week: What if it rains on the Games? What emerged was a new, down-to-earth conception of the Olympics. «Unique Games on a Human Scale» is the resulting, workable logo that manages to distinguish Greece’s effort and harks back to the modern country’s ancestors and ancient values without, it is hoped, bequeathing its descendants an eternal mountain of debt. The «Human Games» will also be relatively streamlined ones. This shift in perception speaks of realism: That Athens should and could not compete with the biggest host countries. It also speaks reassuringly of balancing commerce with culture, and of renewing older traditions as well as setting new precedents. But modesty is not always the Olympic or the Greek way, and what is emerging is a cultural extravaganza which, in the miasma of its own development, rivals the chaos of artistic creation that it intends to promote. It all offers an unexpected, over-the-top counterpoint to the relatively buttoned-down planning of the Games themselves. Just this week Thanos Mikroutsikos, a noted composer, was picked to head the cultural side of Athens 2004, the Games organizers; he will be responsible for the cultural events in the three months preceding the Games in August. These events are strictly separate from the Cultural Olympiad, a four-year programmatic behemoth and brainchild of Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos that envisions something a great deal grander. The differences are striking. Mikroutsikos said, «We are attempting not to make the Olympic Games different, something which aside from grandiose is also utopian, but instead to give them a cultural dimension.» Venizelos, as well he might, thinks bigger thoughts: In his description of the «general framework» of the Cultural Olympiad, based on a short book he published earlier this year, he holds that the 2004 Games are «radically different from previous ones… Therefore it is desirable to organize not just one cultural event but a cultural program of global scope…» In either case and whatever the rationale, the Athens Olympics will be accompanied by a great splash of culture to go along with the grunting and sweat of athletes in August 2004. But just how big? And what’s at stake? Culture wars and peace That culture, however defined, should be an essential element of the Olympic Games is hardly in question. The IOC Charter, a lengthy and occasionally ponderous document setting out principles of Olympism and the like, mandates a link. It sets out (Rule #44) the holding of «a program of cultural events… serving to promote harmonious relations, mutual understanding and friendship…» But those vague guidelines don’t say how, or even how long – in dramatic contrast to planning and holding the Games themselves, choreographed almost down to the day for the next two years – so host countries are free to interpret matters as they want. And in a country with abundant culture and history now entering the world stage, if you give organizational license to an ambitious man with an agenda, a fertile mind and a big budget, and engaged in a tug of war with various rivals, you will get some interesting results. What we have is a Cultural Olympiad, amorphous but sweeping in conception, big in every sense, combining Greek and foreign productions and events. Yet they somehow linger on the periphery of the Games themselves, for all the minister’s hopes that the Cultural Olympiad will be «an event of global significance.» Greek culture and the Cultural Olympiad are, of course, far from identical. The latter is a ministerial program; the former is all-encompassing. And there has been a latent, sometimes unstated, cultural war in Greece over the Olympics (now diminishing somewhat), between what could be called «old» or artistic and «new» or entrepreneurial values, or, culture and commercialism. The two mascots, Phevos and Athena, came in for some criticism along these lines, with some regarding them as a dumbing-down of an ancient artifact with a modern cartoon. Such gentle contempt is perhaps understandable but unfair as well as beside the point, which is that they are figures of fantasy and fun. Yet despite this occasional sort of world-weary dismissal of the Olympics as evidence of creeping philistinism by some in the artistic and intellectual community (real or self-styled), there is no question that the pressure of 2004 is in many – but not all – ways a great boost to Greek culture, directly and indirectly. This is the case not just for the world exposure of artists but for new projects (eg the Marathon Museum), completed ones long delayed (the Unification of Archaeological Sites), renovation of facilities (the National Archaological Museum) and in drawing international attention to little-known elements of Greece’s cultural heritage (eg the icons of Veria on display in Bruges, Belgium). And there are plenty of additional, unappreciated aesthetic benefits like plans to prune ugly signposts and billboards from the city center in preparation for the international deluge (of people, hopefully not more rain) two summers from now. Apart from teething problems and delays, perhaps the main problem of the Cultural Olympiad – and it is a serious and unaddressed one – is that the focus is on big-budget extravaganzas and showcasing known figures, rather than cultivating younger talent and struggling institutes that will form the new generation of Greek artists. Mikis Theodorakis’s recent, multimillion-euro production of «Lysistrata» came in for some criticism due to its expense. The Theodorakises and Markopouloses of the Greek world have earned every accolade, but they will make it on their own without the Cultural Olympiad. Others might not, and arguably are being overlooked. Easy to be hard «Cultural Olympiad SA» has been conjured up as an enterprise separate from the Olympic Games themselves, not just as an arty adjunct to the Games as in Atlanta in 1996 or Sydney in 2000. Sydney’s Olympics Arts Festival cost around 20 million (Aus) dollars; Greece’s Cultural Olympiad is budgeted at around 120 million euros. It is not a new idea but certainly a new dimension. It is partly defined by what it is not: not merely part of the Games but a separate institution; not a 17-day sports program but a four-year artistic celebration; not a festival but something much more sweeping; and not an organizational matter for Athens 2004, but of the government and of the Culture Ministry. The ministry encompasses the two portfolios of Culture and Sport, straddling the seas of body and spirit like a modern Colossus of Rhodes, perched with a foot on either side of the island’s harbor. Like the Planning Ministry, which somehow juggles environment and public works, this element seems bureaucratically (oxy)moronic, but there it is. In the Venizelos conception, the Cultural Olympiad is about the universality of mankind, or a «culture of civilizations,» whereby «all the civilizations of the world are important.» All civilizations are definable in terms of three things: time, locus, and word, whereby, it is said, time is a matter of history, history becomes memory, and memory knowledge. The «locus» is the link between us as individuals, modern Prometheans, to the culture of the planet, while «word as narrative explains the world, and word as science overturns itself.» Or something. It’s either brilliant or exceptionally woolly, and it’s hard to know which is which at such a high level of generality. There is a whiff of brainstorming, coffee-besotted enthusiasts working on an alternative to globalization and its discontents. But as set out, there is a danger of pomposity replacing earnestness as the operative principle. There are two things in Venizelos’s defense, though. One is his hope of creating «a framework of cultural pluralism and tolerance,» a timely and needfully optimistic notion in light of September 11. Secondly, he rightly points out that the Games themselves are relentlessly choregraphed, while their cultural side still invites creativity, divergence from the mainstream, and intangibles that can’t be measured but still matter hugely in the effort to develop minds and spirits as well as bodies – as the ancient Greeks so famously wanted and as de Coubertin recognized. Sam would be surprised For all its big-word theorizing and stated inclusiveness, the Cultural Olympiad also reflects other, less exalted factors at work. For one thing, it implicitly sets out to refute Professor Samuel Huntington of Harvard, whose Foreign Affairs article called «The Clash of Civilizations» argued that the future world will be separated mainly by civilizations, not nation-states, and will be the source of future conflicts. «Clash» emerged, along with Francis Fukuyama’s «end of history» monograph, as standards of early post-Cold War thought, which also made them everybody’s favorite straw men to beat with the sticks of unanswerable counterargument by others having more time on their hands than creativity in their minds. New ideas can be perilous, but refuting them can be tiresome. Venizelos, for his part, posits culture as a force for linking civilizations, and therefore as a force for peace. Thus he consciously links the Cultural Olympiad idea with another, equally ambitious notion, the revived Olympic Truce; even though art tends to showcase conflict rather than calm. Interestingly, the initial description is signed – curiously, as a governmental minister wrote it – Professor Venizelos, implying that an academic bone is being picked here, without Prof. Huntington even realizing it. He would surely be astonished to think his ideas formed a negative impetus for Greece’s Cultural Olympiad. Posterity in mind Another aspect is the permanent legacy which Venizelos clearly hopes to leave. In 1998, an International Foundation for the Cultural Olympiad was set up, on his initiative, which is to be based permanently at Ancient Olympia and even serve as a non-governmental organization giving advice to future Olympic hosts. This will (next year) hand out cultural awards – the Kotinos (olive wreath) and Kouros/Kori (sic) awards to «famous artists» and younger people respectively – in fields like intercultural dialogue, protection of the cultural heritage, literature, music, and the arts. All this harks back to the Arts, Letters, and Sport conference that Pierre de Coubertin convened in 1906 to give cultural content to the Olympic Games, which reached fruition at the Stockholm Games of 1912 as the «Pantheon of the Muses.» Medals were given out in an often-controversial Olympics arts competition until discontinued after the London Games of 1948; two competitors even won medals in both fields (athletics and art). You certainly can’t accuse the minister of overlooking tradition, even if the result will never equal the contests of choral poetry and dance that graced the ancient Games. There are plenty of politics in the mix too. The Cultural Olympics seems set up as a sort of organizational rival to Athens 2004 – the Games organizers having a separate budget as well as the ear of the IOC – which is useful in the perennial turf battles in the Cabinet over a limited budget. And trying to establish the Cultural Olympiad as a permanent affair may help alleviate the advance frustration some may feel over the unlikelihood of Greece ever hosting the Olympics again, much less permanently; it’s not such a bad alternative. But the fact that two different heads of the Cultural Olympiad resigned in quick succession (film director Michael Cacoyannis and, late last year, the poet Titus Patrikios) suggests they ran afoul of political pressures and bureaucratic tangles. The current head, Evgenios Yiannakopoulos, a lawyer, is an established hand at the Culture Ministry and the tourist board, though whether that makes him more pliable is anybody’s guess. Making a splash From this wellspring, an expansive, expensive and all-inclusive program is on the cards – if not yet on the card, given the problems in finalizing the multi-year program. The Cultural Olympiad will include all manner of events: conferences, exhibitions, performances, music, festivals, alternative art forms, and popular culture. One question this raises is whether these events would not have occurred without the Olympics, and how much their impact changes given the Olympics stamp of approval. Much of this is admittedly unclear. The Epidaurus performances this summer came under the Cultural Olympiad milieu, as will a Cavafy tribute next year, one to Kazantzakis in 2004; a «Theatrical Olympiad» in 2003 and 2004; and traveling performers like Agnes Baltsa and Maria Farandouri will sing the praises of the Games of Greece. The (pending) list is huge and the gamut worldwide, and no holds are barred; Swatch arts events and Byzantine treasures are all part of the mix. And while it is intended as a program to showcase the best of Greek culture, it also works the other way, as a lure: In 2004 the Royal Ballet and London Symphony Orchestra will be here for gala performances. Vladimir Ashkenazy wants to be involved, and minimalist composer Philip Glass was angling for a commission earlier this summer. When you open the honeypot, the bees will flock. If all this pans out, Greece could indeed be a trendsetter for future Olympiads. In the past, most artistic programs accompanied the Games themselves or, at most, encompassed a yearlong celebration. At Salt Lake in 2002, the focus was on local activities and community events, in a low-key attempt to draw skeptical locals into the activity. Greece’s messianic Cultural Olympiad is just the opposite. But the downside to such expansive planning is that it could resemble everything and yet nothing, be unfocused and limitless. Clearly, these Olympics won’t be just about sports. The lurking danger is that, for all the supposed emphasis on humanity and individual expression, the cultural side of the Games could turn out to be an over-the-top expression of the very qualities they were meant to replace.