A long way to go to 2004

We Greeks so often find ourselves so out of joint with the rest of the world that we have become used to it. But it still comes as a surprise when we see that this can happen also with regard to an issue that should clearly unite Greeks and all well-meaning people – the Athens 2004 Olympics. And here the joke is that it is people who do not live here who appear to be more excited about the Olympics and to understand their significance than the permanently jaded natives. Apart from showing that there is a profound difference of perception between people inside and outside Greece, the Olympics serve also as a touchstone by which we can judge our society. Of course, the rest of the world is going about its business and is not devoting any great amount of time and thought to the Olympics. But what everyone does know is that the Olympics are to begin on August 13, they are the greatest communal event on earth, they are a celebration, they are a great challenge to the host country and a great opportunity for it to excel and to show the rest of the world what it can do. As the first Olympics of the post-September 11 world, the Athens Olympics have become even more important than previous ones. Firstly, in a world of monumental change, in which even the seemingly unshakeable alliance between the United States and Europe has been shaken, in which the United Nations has been undermined and is passively waiting to see what its future holds, the Olympic Games are one of the few constants left for all the world to share. And this makes it even more important both to defend them against terrorist attacks and to present them as a celebration of the aspirations of collective man. In a nutshell, the Olympic Games and the Olympic ideals are much greater than Greece. In fact, the Olympics are the only reason that Greece is on the map at all today. For a nation of navel gazers it’s natural that we wouldn’t know what the rest of the world is thinking. And we are also in the thick of the Olympic preparations and Olympic gossip and Olympic griping. We live with the Olympics as a fact, not as an ideal. And this is the problem – if we lose sight of the ideal then the Olympics are just another big event that will cost a lot of money and inconvenience. There was great excitement in 1997 when Athens won the bid to host the Olympics, a bid that was based on hard work and inspired promises of holding Games on a human level and on the basis of the ancient ideals. All of this is missing from the debate in Greece, which focuses on whether the venues and transport projects will be ready in time, whether the Americans will be happy with the security arrangements and whether Greece can afford the cost of the Games. (It is worth mentioning here, though, that one of the Olympic ideals, the Olympic Truce, however idealistic it may seem, is picking up steam; the UN General Assembly on Monday voted unanimously for a truce during the Athens Games. Who knows, maybe this is one ideal that can become real, if only briefly…) Greece’s news media, meanwhile, seem obsessed with Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, who heads the Athens 2004 Organizing Committee. They are either enamored of her glamour or repelled by her vanity. Either way, they miss the vineyard for the vine. Ms Angelopoulos-Daskalaki is probably the only person with the hard edge to get things done here and also lay on the charm abroad. She has been entrusted with getting the Olympics organized in time and should not be confused with being the Olympics. She and her team need all the support they can get. If they are deemed to be failing, they must be replaced – and the debate must be over their effectiveness and not themselves. This would then help achieve a successful Olympiad. As it is – and it is difficult to judge how accurate this assumption is, as it is based on appearances – there is a belief that the Athens 2004 team is overstaffed and overpaid. (Ms Angelopoulos-Daskalaki herself is unpaid.) One may argue that the organizing committee needs to hire the best and the brightest, taking them away from other high-paying jobs in return for a few years’ work before leaving them without a job again. But there is also the feeling that too many people have been hired as political favors, to no great benefit for the organization. The press office, for example, appears to be wildly overstaffed and it is not clear whether journalists are being paid because of the great needs of the Games, or because it is a way of buying influence. Athens 2004 is adamant that it will balance its budget, but criticism of profligacy, whether justified or not, has created a widespread feeling that the Olympics organizers are isolated from the public which will provide both the volunteers and the spectators for the Games. It is most likely that all Greeks will pull together and manage to put on an excellent Olympiad when the time comes, but it is undeniable that right now there is more skepticism than enthusiasm. And it is perhaps unfair to have put the organizing committee as the main source of blame for this. Great responsibility for the problem also lies with the government, which has been involved in periodic turf wars with the organizing committee and put across the message that the good old Socialists in power won’t stand for all this glitz. At times, officials have tried to ignore the fact that it was the government that appointed Ms Angelopoulos-Daskalaki to head the organizing committee. (She too has done nothing to stifle rumors of political ambitions.) This sense that construction work and strategy for the Games and for the economy beyond the Olympics has been waylaid by political infighting has created fears that Athens 2004 may turn out to be a lost opportunity, if not a very expensive albatross. The government and the state machinery have not appeared to be more efficient nor more prescient than they were before, which, in the eye of the public and the media, does not augur well as to how the great international attention that will be lavished on Greece will be exploited to any lasting benefit. Less than a year before the Olympics, in other words, and our government and state machinery have not managed to rise to the occasion. Has the National Tourism Organization done anything to exploit the extra interest in Greece or is it waiting until it is too late, again, to advertise the country? Is there any reason to believe that taxi drivers, waiters, shop attendants and many other people whom visitors to the Games will come into contact with will be any better than they are now? This sense of things having remained unchanged in the years since we won the bid to host the Olympics has led, inevitably, to our fear that things will not be better after the Games. We all see the major infrastructure works that are being built – such as the highways, railways and tramline – but we haven’t seen how this will change Athens. Perhaps when things begin to fall into place from next spring we will begin to see the benefits. But this is the problem of having left things too late, relying on the Greek tradition of managing OK in a crisis but hardly managing the rest of the time. People will not see the greatly different beachfront at Faliron, or understand how all the new sports venues can be used by the city’s youth until the Games are upon them. The Greek news media, apart from focusing on the internal politics and bickering among Olympics organizers, also carry much blame for presenting what they believe will be the true costs of the Games but have not pushed hard enough to present (or understand) the benefits that will come from the eyes of the world focusing on Greece. The international news media, on the other hand, have focused obsessively on the simple issues of whether the Greeks will be ready to host the Games and whether security will be OK. This may mean that every editor is happy that his paper or television channel has the same story as everyone else. But in Greece it creates a sense of weariness, of always being on the receiving end of criticism. This, naturally, creates some aversion to the Olympics themselves. But, when all is said and done, as the Games approach we can expect greater and greater excitement from the public. Because when the torch relay is under way across the world and we begin to see the global show coming together and know that it is headed here, we will all be caught up in the magic of what is, in the end, the living spirit of the most ancient ritual among us, a spirit that unites where equally ancient religions divide. And then, with luck, we may find ourselves inspired and, despite ourselves, changed.