Mixed signals – and a bit of hardball

The 2004 Olympics will keep costs strictly contained; the 2004 Olympics, like their 1976 Montreal counterparts, may see huge cost overruns. Building venues and infrastructure are the top priorities; security is the number one concern. Most things are going according to plan; the important things are falling further and further behind. The International Olympic Committee’s Coordination Commission is merely a coordinating body that doesn’t put pressure or police what’s going on; the culture minister responsible says that the Greek government welcomes pressure from the commission. The meetings last week were cordial and productive; the IOC is alarmed about the situation. All Olympics-accredited people are supposed to have visa-free admission into the host country; Greece may require them to have a visa. The existing security plan will require no new resources; the security plan will require a radical overhaul. A successful Games depends on collaboration between all parties; a successful Games depends on the government finally getting its act together. Everybody’s working together; nobody’s working together. Depending on whom you were listening to, these are just some of the would-be clarifications that emerged from last week’s blizzard of meetings in Athens involving visiting members of the Coordination Commission, Games organizers ATHOC, and government representatives, which form the three points of a rather uneasy triangle that is laboring to put an Olympics together. Like a summit meeting, everyone meets for a common purpose, then goes home and provides different interpretations of what really transpired, with the truth floating somewhere in the middle. Or maybe a better metaphor for the overall operation these days is one of those three-legged races at late-summer picnics, where two, normally tipsy, people holding onto each other have their middle legs bound together with a big rubber band, and try to run in tandem against other similarly bound couples, usually tumbling into the grass in disarray amid shrieks of laughter. Fun and frustration are the dual operative elements, only in the case of the Olympics those two modifiers, at least for now, have been reversed. Amid all the alternative interpretations, much could be gleaned by reading between the lines, and there was much that was fairly obvious. Even in public, diplomatic niceties and encouraging words competed with unmistakable signs that the IOC is worried by the lack of direction and growing anxious that, unless things improve dramatically, and soon, some fairly drastic steps will be demanded and harsher words spoken. Most of the finger-pointing was directed at the government for not sticking to a schedule of tenders and construction of venues (how ironic, given that one of the Athens bid’s main talking points was that most of the venues already existed) and for delaying or shelving infrastructure projects considered by the IOC to be vital auxiliary elements, notably the access road from the Olympic Village to the main stadium area at Eirini and a metro extension to the stadium itself. Yet even here the IOC has been busy putting out mixed signals over the past 18 months, as it went through its own organizational upheaval and presidential handover, first bashing, then praising Greece, and now getting on its case again. Blame is not in short supply these days, though consistency seems to be. Infrastructure is public sector business, and progress on planned projects has been interrupted as the PASOK government has been buffeted from all sides over the past months: by continual (and surely draining) internal bickering and dissension; by voter unpopularity and daily pummeling from the opposition; by proposing and then back tracking from social security overhaul in the spring; by worries over how this month’s party congress will go; and now from outside Greece, by the demands of a wholly new international situation following the tragedy of September 11. For a governing party trying to hang on to its electoral mandate (or just hang together), pressure from the likes of Jacques Rogge and Denis Oswald, jetting in from Lausanne every few months to oversee preparations for a sports event still three years away, must seem like small potatoes, dispatched with reassuring words and promises of greater attention. But soon any lingering complacency will have to wear off, or the Olympics could become the biggest single albatross around its neck. At least there are now some refreshing admissions, such as that from Culture Minister Venizelos, that too much, too soon may have been promised before. But that still doesn’t help much from here. Indeed, for all the surface politeness, including a post-visit statement by Rogge that we are confident, he also said – and there aren’t many minced words here – the task ahead for the construction sector is unparalleled in the history of Greece. And his colleague Oswald added that even providing top-quality venues and services, especially for the athletes, constituted the bare minimum, and that we should expect more from these Games on their return to their birthplace. Perhaps the signals aren’t so mixed after all. Yet despite the public admonitions (which were probably much worse in private), some of the associated fears could still be overstated. One example could be venue construction, and the mooted possibility of drawing up and implementing contingency plans in case of continued delays, which might well include scrapping some planned permanent venues, notably wrestling and badminton, in favor of prefabricated ones. The proposed media village is already likely to be prefabricated, a prospect which no doubt warms the hearts of journalists the world over, perspiring rather than salivating over visions of coming to Greece to process words in mid-August under a tin roof hot enough to fry an egg on. Still, there are benefits to temporary venues too. They can be torn down afterward and parks put in their place, if civic-minded heads prevail. They would be much cheaper. They won’t necessarily affect the competitions themselves. There is a huge empty former airport where, at least, space is now available in an otherwise overcrowded city. If this means that Athens will be deprived of a permanent badminton arena, who cares? And as scaling the Games back, making them more manageable, is one of Rogge’s stated goals as IOC president, Athens’s delays could actually be a catalyst for re-examining their overall size and for emphasizing their human, not concrete, elements, which, in turn, has long been one of Athens 2004’s aims too. There are worries, but let’s not get carried away. Western diplomats and analysts following the reformers’ progress give them high marks in many areas.

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