My Pre-Olympic Medals Table

The Olympic Village has opened and the first athletes are already here. Volunteers in their cute white, blue and orange outfits are springing up everywhere and accredited journalists wander around town with their big plastic name tags hanging like talismans from their necks. In two weeks’ time the Games will have begun, sweeping all else away. In one week the whole world will be here already and we will be obsessing over last-minute preparations or any glitches that will appear as the seams of the Olympic system stretch. This may be our last chance to look at all those who prepared Athens, and the rest of Greece, for this new date with history. Because, however much the daily grind and awful rush may have obscured the fact, the Athens 2004 Olympics will stand as a defining moment in Greece’s history. The modernization of transport and other major infrastructure projects are the biggest single intervention in the city since it was decreed the Greek capital in 1834 and the Bavarian prince who was the modern Greeks’ first king (for a while) tried to revive the forgotten backwater along the lines of its ancient greatness. That effort resulted in a few grand buildings in central Athens but it petered out in the face of the great difficulties encountered and the lack of official enthusiasm. This lack of support for visionary projects was evident both in the government of the great reformer Harilaos Trikoupis, who modernized Greece but was opposed to the hosting of the Olympic resurrection in 1896, and in the half-hearted support Costas Simitis, the equally modernizing prime minister of a century later, gave the 2004 Olympics until, in 2000, he suddenly took over the effort to prepare the Games himself. Without these Games, many major projects which Athens needed and had long been planned would not have been built so quickly. So let’s look at the winners, losers and also-rans of our pre-Olympic era. The Athens 2004 Organizing Committee (also known as ATHOC, which makes it sound like a particularly accident-prone Monty Python knight) is only now limbering up to its big moment, a moment that, if all goes well, should make it invisible. If it has prepared a perfect Games, it should disappear like Eurydice before our gaze. Otherwise it will have to be all over the place – solving problems and facing the music. So far, ATHOC has been visible mainly in the person of its president, Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, and the high drama of her dealings with the former government and the International Olympic Committee. Gianna, as she is known to all, headed Athens’s bid to be granted the 2004 Games in 1997. She impressed with the professionalism of the bid and the way she charmed foreign officials – not with the arrogant claim that Greece owned the Games (as was the case in the unsuccessful bid for the 1996 Centennial Games) but with the argument that Greece was ready and would also be good for the Games. Successful, she was then dumped by Costas Simitis’s PASOK government which did not want its Socialist credentials tainted by her conservative past (she was a New Democracy MP before marrying very well) and her great wealth. In 2000, when the IOC warned that it might take the Games away from Athens because of interminable delays in the preparations, Angelopoulos-Daskalaki was recommissioned. For the world, she has put a glamorous face on Athens’s preparations; in Greece she has appeared ambitious and determined. If the Games go well, she will gain much credit. But all this still has to be seen. Because the news media and public have been focusing on how much ATHOC has been spending and not on the quality of the work that has been done. ATHOC has not won any medals yet, but like an Olympic athlete, it has qualified for the biggest event and will be judged at the end. But just getting here is a triumph in itself. The government. Here two archrivals will have to share the bronze. They could have done better but still have to be on the podium because of the monumental achievement of getting Athens ready, albeit at the last moment. The Socialist PASOK government never really seemed to have its heart in the Olympics until the IOC’s warning made it clear that Greece was headed for unprecedented embarrassment if things went awry. It was a belated understanding that Greece might be the cradle of democracy and most of the arts, but the modern world today would form its opinion of Greece on the strength of these Games. Also, no one had realized what a plague the Greek bureaucracy was, nor how the whole public administration (and the public) were focused on obsessing about problems and creating worse ones, rather than on solving them. PASOK also appeared to overreach in the sense that it planned the biggest and the best of everything. When New Democracy came to power in March all it had to do was complete the projects. First it created a great commotion about how late and how expensive everything was, apparently to make its own efforts appear the more miraculous. This, to a great extent, was responsible for creating a climate of doom and gloom in the international press which, in turn, torpedoed hopes of a tourism boom tied to the Games. But the boom may still come after a successful Games and, to be fair, fears of terrorism and a weak dollar have also put a damper on many people’s desire to travel. In the end, the new government did work hard and well and managed to get Athens ready. PASOK did more but they both share the medal because government is an institution, whether the parties like this or not. The public administration, as a whole, was pulled in as an unwilling participant when it would have preferred to be a spectator. Though its role was crucial it gets no medal, but we can only hope that it has learned that it has to be more efficient. Perhaps the breaking of many logjams will have shown enough people that they do not have to cherish problems more than solutions. Athens Municipality, headed by the media-savvy Mayor Dora Bakoyannis, has been playing a crucial role in the preparations and will certainly play an even bigger one during the Games. These range from the effort to ease the plight of stray dogs while also keeping them off the streets to the mayor’s excellent interviews with foreign news media. The end result will determine the medal but this competitor certainly appears focused on the task at hand and could go high. Volunteers need no medal. Their selflessness and wish to help others is their own reward. But because that is a sorry cliche, we award them gold from now. And we hold them up as an example to the sorry cynics of the Greek media who pander to the cynical view that Greeks only do things out of self-interest. Some of them do and the rest live with the poison. The naysayers – the environmentalists, local officials and many residents near Olympic projects – get their own medal, a bronze, for being often very effective in making their objections. But, despite the endless court cases and press conferences, they do not get higher awards because the Games will still be held. We hope that their efforts helped ease the impact they might have had if there had been no such opposition. The architects, construction companies and technicians get silver medals for all that they have achieved in the shortest possible time. They do not get gold because many of the delays were caused by their procrastination. But a greater reward is the fact that the intensity of their effort and the need to excel have armed them with skills and methods that will be of great use to them and Greece. And, like the Calatrava roof, a great reward is the fact that their work has become a part of a once-great city’s big, belated step toward greatness again. The workers, many of whom are immigrants, are deserving winners of gold. They have built the new Athens, they have raised families and gained skills that will help the whole Balkan region develop. All of us will gain from this. The news media have not covered themselves in glory so far. First there was the Greek media’s obsessing over things like Angelopoulos-Daskalaki’s clothes or her sparring with similarly ambitious but less photogenic PASOK ministers. There was also a split between those media whose owners were also involved in construction and those who were not, with the latter cultivating a climate of impending disaster. Then the Greek media were also overly sensitive to everything written or broadcast about Greece by foreign media, creating a vicious circle of criticism and anger whose only result was to make many Greeks feel like fools for sparing no cost or effort to play host to the world. And this is where many foreign media (mainly from the United States, Britain and Australia) seemed to stray from their task of keeping officials accountable into the sexier field of sniggering condescension, first for the lack of preparation and second for alleged weaknesses in security. Their obsessions made it look as if a serious issue such as terrorism was so small compared to the great effort that everyone else was making for a great and safe Olympiad. The media, of course, are not in this race. Their place is on the sidelines, carping. So no medals here. But they will play a leading role in the Games, from the sidelines, carping. We would have them nowhere else. The Athenians have already won gold – for their saintly patience, for the sacrifices they have made in terms of time, money and effort and for the hopes in which they have invested. Their gold is the new city with its new transport systems and its new standing in the world. And right at the top of the pyramid, with no medals yet, are the athletes. They, more than anyone or anything else, are the living link with those ancient Greeks who competed in Olympia when the Games were born in 776 BC. They are why the world is here. We will give them all our medals.

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