Stage fright

With just two months to go before the start of the Athens Olympics, the days just seem to race by, ever faster, the way the last grains of sand shoot through the hole in an hourglass. Not only does time begin to act funny – expanding or shrinking – but all those involved in the preparation of the Games are caught up in the whirlpool of activity that plunges inexorably toward August 13. It is something like an adrenalin rush and panic. They have stage fright. And perhaps this is the only way we can explain the otherwise baffling loss of nerve by Greece’s hitherto best friend in the harried preparations for the Olympics, IOC President Jacques Rogge. We had grown used to sections of the Greek press carping on about the megalomaniacal preparations for the Athens Games, and the inevitable delays. We were taken aback by the loud ruminations of ministers of the new government, but quickly attributed them to the cynical calculations and opportunism that are all part of our political hurly-burly: A two-pronged plan that, on the one hand, puts blame on others for anything that might go wrong during the Games and also an excuse for weaseling out of extravagant promises for economic handouts made before the elections. In both cases, it would be the former PASOK government that would be blamed. But Rogge had helped shepherd Greece toward preparing for the Games as chairman of the Coordination Commission before, to the Greeks’ great joy, he was elected president of the International Olympic Committee in 2001. Having taken charge of the mother ship after his predecessor’s warning that Athens was in danger of losing the Olympics, he had the luxury of being the one who would stand up and defend the Greeks whenever they faced criticism for the pace of the preparations or their allegedly relaxed attitude to security. It was his successor as the IOC’s supervisor for the Athens franchise, Denis Oswald, who was left to play the role of both good cop and bad cop (alternating his behavior depending on whether he was talking to international or Greek media and whether he was outside Greece or not). So when Rogge, speaking to Le Soir, a French-language Belgian newspaper, last weekend, suddenly put the boot into the Greeks, it was a total surprise. It took a couple of days for Rogge’s comments to reach Greece, finally getting here on Tuesday. And they were very strange, coming just two months before the opening ceremony of the Athens Games. Rogge accused Greece of spending too lavishly on the Games, saying the IOC had always asked for «simple structures» that would have been easier to complete on time. He singled out the roof of the main Olympic stadium, which, he pointed out, as IOC officials have done earlier, was built at the insistence of the Greeks. He claimed that this cost 190 million euros. «They insisted, and we cannot oppose the decisions of a sovereign government. But let no one come and tell us, eye to eye, that the Games have cost too much,» Rogge told the newspaper. He also attributed the billion-euro cost of security preparations to Greece’s «very low level of security (infrastructure).» All of this is valid, but then Rogge issued a resounding slap to the hosts of the Games. The lesson from Athens, he said, is that «we will favor in the future candidacies with a maximum of infrastructure and a minimum of virtual plans.» Why, at this time, with the Games only weeks away and with the Olympic installations obviously heading for completion in time for the opening ceremony, would Rogge wish to kick over the pail of the milk of human kindness that he had so patiently filled over the last seven years? One thought that comes to mind is that he was responding to the rumblings in the government, which, come to think of it, has a rather complicated approach to the Games. Before the elections, both New Democracy and the then PASOK government had very sensibly kept the Olympics out of the campaign. After winning, Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis and his ND government immediately stressed that they did not want any of the key officials involved in the preparations to leave their position. There was an unusual sense of bonhomie as PASOK appeared more than ready to slip into the opposition after eight years in government. But soon the backslapping turned to backstabbing as ND ministers began to complain that Olympic projects were way behind schedule. PASOK retorted that the government was overdramatizing things so as to make itself look heroic as it plunged in fearlessly to complete the works and save the day. A month or two later, the government was proclaiming how everything would be ready and these would be the greatest Games – something which Rogge himself agreed with enthusiastically. «There are actually… 80 days left until the opening of the Olympic Games, but everything that we have studied and watched indicates that there is enough time to finish everything in due time,» he declared in Nicosia on May 25. «I have no doubt whatever that the Athens Games will be the best ever.» So, seeing as the Games would be ready, the government was left to fume about the cost. PASOK had put the budget at 4.6 billion euros. The new government has said this will be several hundred million euros higher, with some reports (which do not specify how this is so) putting the cost at 7 billion and even 10 billion euros. The cost of the Games is a heavy burden, of course, and, coming on top of the debts that Greece already has (with public debt at about 100 percent of GDP), this is good reason for an economic austerity program rather than the exorbitant benefits that New Democracy promised before the elections. (If we consider only the promise to provide permanent employment in the public sector to some 250,000 people who are employed on a limited-contract basis, when the already-bloated public sector has a total of about 450,000 permanent employees, we can guess at the extent of the costs involved.) The government initially based its promises on the customary air-headed belief that it could clamp down on tax evasion and tidy up public finances, claiming that it could gain up to 7.5 billion euros over four years. Three months later, the air has gone out of that scheme, leaving the government with a need for excuses as it faces the impossibility of making good on its promises. PASOK, obviously, is responsible for the economy that it handed over in March, and had done as much as it could to make it look prettier in the runup to the elections. The government, just as obviously, has tried to make it look as bad as possible. While having to borrow urgently, it has also chosen to play up the high cost of the Games. But it has also been hinting darkly that when the Olympics are over it will carry out a full accounting, suggesting sinister dealings in construction projects. Perhaps Rogge was trying to distance his organization from such allusions by stressing that it was the Greeks who chose to go the hard way in doing more than was absolutely necessary for the Games. But perhaps the best explanation is the jumpiness that comes just before such an important and – in Rogge’s case – career-defining event, because he is the IOC official who more than any other has been tied to the effort to prepare the Athens Olympics. But whatever the reason for this loss of nerve, it is a pity that he allowed himself to get caught up in the political machinations in Athens. And he left himself open to blows from perhaps the biggest bruiser in our political system – Evangelos Venizelos, the PASOK official who, as culture minister, had been in charge of Olympic preparations. Declaring that Rogge had been caught up by the government’s «shortsighted and contradictory position regarding the Olympic preparations and their cost,» Venizelos said that all the facilities had been designed according to the demands of the international sports federations involved. He also pointed out that the main stadium roof cost 50 million euros (not the 190 million that Rogge said) and that the overall refurbishment of the stadium came to 230 million. Venizelos, who is no stranger to grandiose failures (most notably the monumental waste and minimal gains of Thessaloniki’s year as the cultural capital of Europe in 1997), made perhaps the most poignant comment on the sorry affair. Rogge, he said, «should remember that were it not for the megalomaniacal Greeks, there would have been no Olympic Games – neither in antiquity nor in the modern era.» The Olympics of 2004 in Athens are tied to the birth and revival of the Olympics more than they could be in any other of the cities of the world to which their message has traveled. And this is what will make them special. Whether any illicit dealings are behind the great cost of the construction projects is something that we will have to investigate. But that should not detract from the fact that a very different Athens will emerge from these Games, and major infrastructure projects that might not have been built for decades will help its citizens save time and become more productive. None of these benefits are mentioned in the current acrimony, as if we are condemned to obsess eternally about the bad and never see the good. That is why we would do nothing if it were not forced on us, and that is why, in the end, the benefit of the Olympics will be that they made us overextend ourselves. As Robert Browning exclaimed, «A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?» We don’t know where the trip will end, but right now it would be a little bit of heaven if everyone just shut up and worked for the success of the Games. Because the curtain is about to go up and there’s no getting out of this show now.