NEWS

All hands (as well as feet) across the water: Greece goes international for the Olympics

The past few weeks have been very international ones for Athens, for Greece, and for the Greek Olympic effort. Some 43 members of the Coordination Commission of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), foreigners but hardly outsiders, have been here this week for their fifth semiannual checkup on the Athens 2004 preparations (not counting smaller working group visits). Last month a large contingent of British sports journalists were here on an information junket and took back good impressions of their Greek visit and hosts. Spanish culture is spilling over into Athens, with two different exhibitions, a 20th-century one at the National Gallery and a Salvador Dali exhibit at the Cycladic Art Museum, with Queen Sofia herself coming to open them. Another Spanish artist with Catalan ties, the architect Salvatore Calatrava, may be absent, yet is still very much a presence here as well. He (and the IOC) are fretting, again, that his inspirational Olympic Stadium design, which aims to keep the heat out while letting the light in, won’t see the light of day due to delays. Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, Athens 2004 head, has been globetrotting on a successful charm offensive, meeting French President Jacques Chirac at the Elysee Palace and later rubbing shoulders with the likes of Lord Sebastian Coe (double Olympic gold medalist in the men’s 1,500, long before he became a peer) and a genuine legend, Sir Roger Bannister, who in 1954 was the first man ever to break the four-minute mile. Greek and Turkish teams even played their first-ever European-league soccer game, in Istanbul, which ended, diplomatically, in a tie, though the boorish visiting fans were definitely not a part of this ongoing sports-as-politics outreach program. The two countries are also readying a joint application to host the European 2008 soccer championships. Mutual reach-out All this extroversion should surprise no one. The Olympics are coming but, more imminently for Greece, crucial UN and EU decisions are pending over Cyprus and there is an EU presidency to grapple with come January. Yet a broader pattern is clearly under way, for which hosting the Olympics is a linchpin. Greece is internationalizing itself in pro-active, not just reactive, ways. Athens and Greece have sometimes given the impression of being somewhat detached, by design or by accident, as, indeed, the nation is detached physically from the rest of Western Europe. (It’s the only continental EU country without direct borders with another member state.) And its preparations require so much local focus that it is a struggle to remember that, at the Games, the Greek element will be dwarfed by the foreign one. The IOC itself has more than «just» the Athens Olympics to grapple with. As the IOC’s youthful director of communications, Giselle Davis, pointed out in a well-received talk to journalists on the sidelines of these (firmly closed-door) IOC meetings, it already has three different Olympics host cities to worry about – Athens, Turin (Winter Games 2006) and Beijing (Summer Games 2008) – and, by next summer, it will have a fourth helping on its plate, with the selection of the host city for the 2010 Winter Games. Hot on its heels is the competition to host the 2012 Summer Games, which North America and Europe are already jostling for, including New York, Toronto, several German and Spanish cities, possibly London and Paris, and another wild card or two (Brazil, South Africa). The losers will then gear up for 2016. So as Athens’s time – and attention – span contracts, the rest of the world seems to be expanding its. The Olympics may be broadening for both host city and the world, but preparing for them also requires tunnel vision. Closer to home And the time for such tunnel vision is clearly upon us. This visit, as always, has reminded the Athens 2004 preparatory committee that all the outreach in the world won’t solve construction and other problems at home which are changing from pressing to urgent. Amid all the professed good will and cooperation, a number of issues have arisen that Mrs Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, resplendent in red on Wednesday and pulling purposefully on a long cigar, admitted were «non-expected issues.» «We know there are legal problems,» she was quoted by officials as saying, «but we are cooperating closely with the agencies involved, and are looking for the right solutions.» «Looking» in this case likely involves imploring and arm-twisting, as three key issues were highlighted early on: transport (including road access; the tram, where the mayor of Faliron could hold everything up; and the suburban railway, which the mayor of Athens has already objected to in part); the legally delayed Calatrava architectural overhaul of the Olympic complex (OAKA); and the new sports infrastructure slated for the old Hellenikon airport, notably baseball and softball facilities, the canoe and kayak slalom, and a basketball arena for 15,000- 20,000 spectators. Legal injunctions have similarly stymied progress there all year. These delays at OAKA and Hellenikon – two of the three points of the so-called Olympic Triangle – have attracted considerable attention and criticism recently, especially as they are key and multifaceted components that loom bigger and bigger the closer we get. The IOC itself has expressed concern that one or both may be against the wall in terms of time, while transport seems fated to be a huge concern from beginning to end. Some crucial test events over the next year may have to be moved or scrapped. Some preliminary work has, however, apparently begun at Hellenikon for the kayak slalom course, while officials asserted Wednesday that the Calatrava design for the main stadium and cycling velodrome – the two main elements, if not the whole renovation package – will proceed as planned. Confirmation of this would certainly be timely, not least for Mr Calatrava. The same officials repeatedly insisted that today would bring good news on both fronts. Then again, Denis Oswald, Co-Com chairman, noted on Monday that whenever he comes to town, miracles always seem to happen. As he met with Archbishop Christodoulos before getting briefed by government officials, one wonders who can bring miracles to whom. There are other positive developments too. By year’s end, there will be operational planning details in place for each site involved, including venues, the Olympic Village, and the media villages. A major ($250 million) security system tender will be completed this month. The Greek route for the symbolic torch relay has been finalized, and the tender for the competition for torch designer already closed; the designer will be chosen this month. So much is going on that little of it reaches the public ear. Other voices With the real work going on in committees upstairs, the organizers also managed to arrange a set of presentations that illustrated both the global nature of the Olympics and the lifelong interest that can develop around them. Ms Davis’s presentation outlined the extent of IOC work, not just the smallish media office but the whole panoply for advancing the concept of «Olympism» (values espoused through the Olympic experience) through educational programs, doping controls, promotion of women in sport, media outreach and the like. Now under way by the Jacques Rogge presidency is a complete review of the Games’ sporting program (the first since 1948, and an unmistakable sign of restricting the size of the event), as well as a series of commissions (looking at, eg technical and cost issues for future Games). An IOC session will be held late this month in Mexico City to ratify recommendations by the 15-member Executive Board, notably for future (post-2004) Olympic sport cutbacks and/or trimmings. It is clear that the Games generate the revenue, mainly via sponsorship and broadcasting, that funds the other programs. A transfer of wealth it may be, but the IOC is not exactly Robin Hood. And overt use of democratic vocabulary (a «government» of the Executive Board, a «parliament» of the General Assembly) can generate false comfort, for the IOC is not exactly a democracy in action, even if it does many good things. The star of the day, however, was a top sports journalist and editor for The Times with vast Olympics experience (nine Summer Games) and a sports career as well, presciently named John Goodbody. He, Ms Davis and Lord Byron all attended the same college (Trinity at Cambridge, where Byron apparently kept a live bear in his room), and he was here to caution his listeners to do their homework before the Games and become mini-experts in things like business, the law, and doping issues, just in case. And his exhortation to think globally, not just locally, in covering the Games seems well attuned to the real spirit of things. He was also a perfect choice for speaker. Anybody who can swim the English Channel (over 30 kilometers /18 miles wide) at the age of 48 knows a thing or two about thinking big while keeping his feet on the ground – or, in this case, in the water.