The tram and the trireme

With three weeks to go before the opening ceremony of the Athens Olympics, everything is coming together suddenly. It is like watching one of those old documentaries in which something like, say, the budding and flowering of a rose, is filmed and then played back in extra-quick time so that we see the whole thing happening before our eyes. The long delays in almost every project undertaken in preparation for the Games is like the laborious filming that takes place before the film is played back. The way major projects that were years in construction are suddenly being inaugurated one after the other on a daily basis also resembles another type of documentary – the one where a mass of eggs suddenly begins to erupt and out come crawling little crocodiles, climbing over each as they head for the water. Over the last two weeks, we have seen cars crawling out over newly opened roads and intersections, we have seen trams return to the city that gave them the boot 44 years ago to make way for cars, we saw trains racing over new links on the metro and suburban rail network, we saw imaginary foreign agents with guns crawling all over the place as the government (and the country) began to come to terms with the fact that the Games are upon us and that it need not only do everything to make Greece safe for its visitors but must also be seen to be making it safe. And finally, yesterday, the winds died down and the airship that is to provide aerial surveillance of Athens during the Olympics lifted off and floated over the city, like the fat white cocoon of some mysterious butterfly. It was like a parody of the expedition to Troy, when the Greek king Agamemnon was forced to slaughter his innocent daughter, Iphigeneia, so that the winds would turn in the Greeks’ favor. Our loss of innocence regarding armed foreign agents breaking our taboos coincided with the winds dying down. Beyond all the excitement of the construction work finishing and the security arrangements falling into place, though, the great change in the last few days has been the increasing sense that the Olympics are upon us. It is as if we are sensing the dull, almost imperceptible rumble of the earthquake that will hit us in the next couple of weeks as the athletes and their attendants and officials and spectators begin to arrive and to make themselves comfortable in our city. At times it is almost too much, trying to get a sense of what our new city is all about, with major interventions like the tram suddenly upon us, while also getting ready to play host to the world and listen to the endless chatter of its news media. It’s like being the host of a party in a house that we haven’t quite moved into yet. It’s nice to have everyone here but it will also be quite nice, after they have all left, to clean up and see just what our new city looks like. Now, with all the effort that we have made, the sense of the huge amounts of money that are being spent in order to put on the best of everything – from the Olympic facilities themselves to the transport and security networks – sometimes we may be forgiven for being a little testy about what often seem like the simplistic obsessions of some of our foreign friends. The focus on construction delays and on perceived security lapses – neither of which can be said to be an issue now, seeing as how seriously Greece has taken both issues – is understandable. But there is a very real danger that this negative mode can color everything related to the Games. On the one hand, all the talk of delays and potential trouble must be partly to blame for the unexpectedly low number of visitors who have turned up in Athens so far. On the other, even if the Games go off superbly, they will have been burdened by the gloom that preceded them and there may also be a sense that however good they may be they are still not as good as they could have been. The unfortunate thing is that the Games have been plagued by two incidents of unfortunate timing, over which the Olympics themselves had absolutely no control. The first, and by far the most serious problem, was the advent of the post-September 11 world and the fact that Al Qaeda and those that it inspires have not been crushed. So the hope that Athens could host the world’s great celebration after civilization’s triumph over terrorism was not realized. Instead, civilization celebrates with guards at the gates of the stadiums and cities hosting the Games. This is sad but this is the world in which we live and we are glad, anyhow, to be the hosts of this party. Secondly, the world’s perception of delays and problems has resulted very much from the fact that this has been a major part of the narrative in Greece over the past few months, as we had a change of government in March. Even though the major parties kept to a pre-electoral agreement not to make the Games an election issue, when the conservative New Democracy party came to power it began to lament the delays in Olympic facilities and major construction projects – only to change its tune a few weeks later and declare that everything was doable (as, indeed, events proved). Now that everything seems to be ready, apart from a lot of tidying up still being carried out around most stadiums, the government is happy with what has been done; but the rest of the world has retained the image of a problem-plagued Olympiad. The key month or two in which the Olympic projects were well and truly orphaned turned out to be crucial to the image of the Games. But all this will be forgotten when the Games begin. All the infighting and bureaucratic delays that resulted in three lost years after 1997, all the court cases brought by environmental groups and local residents, the skullduggery that may or may not have been involved in the security contracts for the Games, the pride and prejudice of the organizers and their critics, the fear of terrorism will fade into the background. Soon we will have the arrival of the best athletes from 202 countries, who, in their prime, will try to take advantage of what for most of them will be a once-in-a-lifetime effort to be the best in the world. And – although this may sound awfully magniloquent and pretentious, but time has proved it true – the Olympics are the biggest and most prestigious competition the world has ever known. What’s more, this time the event is being held as close to its birthplace as possible. These are things that will be felt when the time is right. No amount of cheerleading will lead to that tingle, to that goose-pimply feeling that will erupt when the pine groves of ancient Olympia resound once again to the grunts of competition and spectators’ cheers, when the marathon runners race from the plain where the Athenians beat the Persians in what turned out to be a crucial step on the road to what we know as democracy, when the Greeks (these proud, prickly and giving people who wear their ancient heritage as if it were a coat cut to their measure yesterday) unite in a roar as their team takes the lead or when some competitor does something particularly impressive and catches the people’s heart. Those moments, despite everything that comes before or after, are what makes this communion stronger than religion. The Olympics, indeed, are older than most of the world’s great religions, including Christianity and Islam. And the great thing is that they unite every nation (with some exceptions like Afghanistan when it was ruled by the unlamented Taleban), without discrimination. After the end of apartheid in South Africa, everyone is welcome, everyone is equal. Add to that the concept of the Olympic Truce and you have a glimpse of a utopia beyond the dreams of political philosophers. This is what it’s all about. These days, outside our office in Neo Faliron on Athens’s coast that faces the islands of the Saronic Gulf, such as Aegina and Hydra, a huge highway intersection has been completed and opened to traffic, where there was a grubby landfill. For the past week the gleaming new trams have been rolling past, on their way between the nearby stadium and Syntagma Square. All are signs of a progress that Athens had been without for too long. But perhaps the most symbolic moment recently was on the Monday before last (July 12), the day the blackout hit Athens and the rest of southern Greece and plunged us all into an embarrassed gloom. In the late afternoon sun, out in Faliron Bay where little sailboats usually play, where tugboats throb along purposefully, a wooden ship appeared suddenly, as if it had been there all along, waiting to be seen. It was the Olympias, a replica of the ancient Athenian fighting ship known as a trireme. It was out in the bay as the volunteers, all residents of Piraeus, manning its oars practiced for August 11, the day on which their ship will carry the Olympic Flame on its way to the Olympic Stadium and the opening ceremony. It is a miracle of serendipity that the trireme, commissioned into the Greek Navy in 1987, will play a part in these Games. The original triremes, with their three rows of oarsmen and their fast and maneuverable design, were instrumental in the Athenians’ defeat of the Persians in the Battle of Salamis near here in 480 BC. In the ensuing peace, Athens became an empire and, at the same time, invented democracy. The fact that the crews of these ships, who were common people and not aristocrats, were now the backbone of the state’s defense led to their being given an equal say in how their state was run. Although this was limited to male citizens of Athens, it was the first giant step that led to humanity’s emancipation from the bonds of class and luck. When this ship brings in the Olympic Flame, with real people pulling real oars in the sea which gave the world democracy, everything we have been chattering about the past few years will part like a stage curtain as the lights focus on the spectacle and our hearts begin to race.