A leap beyond the Olympics

In the pregnant few days before the opening ceremony, as a relieved world sees that we are on track for a fine Olympiad, much is being said about the proverbial Greek way of doing things. The current narrative of these Games is that Greece was given the opportunity to host the Olympics because the International Olympic Committee, one year after the less than spiritual Atlanta Centennial Games, wanted to dip the golden goose in the fountain of youth that is the spiritual birthplace of the Olympics – Greece. The Greeks, then, after having won the bid, appeared to have thought that starting was as good as finishing the race, and so rested on their illusionary laurels for a full three years before, in 2000, the IOC, alarmed at the possible sullying of its franchise, warned that it was prepared to give the Games to another city. At that point, common wisdom has it, the Greek government woke up and handed over the organization of the Games to Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki (who had led the successful bid in 1997). Preparations gradually began to build up speed, going faster and faster, until, in the blur of the past few weeks, a new, Olympic Athens suddenly burst out of the dowdy wrappings of seemingly endless construction projects, like Cinderella all slim and pretty and covered in colorful banners and ready for the ball. And not only was Cinderella pretty, but she was accompanied by a multinational security advisory group and 70,000 bodyguards (this was one fairy-tale figure that was not going to lose anything more than a shoe at the ball). This is a nice and neat story, which fits well with the foreign stereotypes of Greeks as undisciplined and disorganized, lounging about and wasting time until they have to put up a superhuman effort to get things done. The Greeks, too, play up this aspect of their national character as if it were especially appealing, in the delusion that it shows just how great they are when they do get cracking. This is a little like Aesop’s hare saying that it’s OK if he takes a nap, he will always beat the tortoise in the end. In the same story, foreign observers see the hare napping when it should be racing while Greeks see the hare pipping the tortoise at the post after having managed to create drama out of what would otherwise have been a dreadfully boring event. Foreigners smirk at the Greeks’ wasted opportunities while the Greeks mock others for their mirthless single-mindedness. And so everyone is happy by their harmless but prejudiced belittling of the other. But the Olympics are far too big an event for anyone to think that the story is as simple as it looks. The truth is that the Greeks were late in picking up speed and, in the end, they did manage to get Athens ready for the Games, undertaking a task that was much bigger than anyone could have foreseen, including the Greeks. So, events themselves would seem to prove the stereotype. I would argue, though, that the Greeks did not make a slow start because they were too busy enjoying the good life to care about the race they had to run. The hare was not lying under the tree because he wanted a nap. The hare was ill but he did not know it. Then there is also the fact that Athens began the race way, way behind what one would have thought was the starting line. One of the reasons the IOC gave the Olympics to Athens was the bid committee’s declaration that the city already had 75 percent of the necessary sports facilities in place and that it would soon have a number of important transportation projects ready. This was a major step ahead of the declarations made in bidding for the 1996 Games, when the Greeks argued simply that they deserved the Games because they and the Olympics were Greek and Athens had hosted the first Modern Olympics in 1896. What no one had counted on was how much refurbishing would be carried out on existing sports facilities nor how grand the designs for the others would be. More significantly, no one had understood how much of a burden a bloody-minded and incompetent bureaucracy would be; how self-centered every special interest group would be; nor the fact that the Olympics would be held in a very different world from that of the previous Games in Sydney. In the post-September 11 world, there were now monsters on the course that the hare had to run. Also, midway through 2004, in a totally different era, we sometimes forget some of the momentous events that changed Greek history over the past few years – including the period between Athens’s being awarded the Olympics in 1997 and the IOC warning in 2000. Most significantly, Greece pulled itself together with a major economic program and joined the single European currency, managing to find a safe monetary harbor that would provide unprecedented stability. In 1999, after the fiasco in which Greek officials tried unsuccessfully to offer shelter to the Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan (who is serving a life term in Turkey), Greece undertook a major change in its foreign policy, opening the way to greatly improved ties with its traditional rival, Turkey. Also in 1999, Greece was paralyzed by the Kosovo war, in which the public was overwhelmingly opposed to the NATO-led war while the government provided all necessary assistance to the alliance, in accordance with its obligations. Greece was undergoing massive change at all levels, some of which – like giving up the drachma, easing tension with Turkey and riding out the Kosovo war – were issues that tested the country’s very identity. The Olympic effort was slowly going ahead but, in the crush of events, 2004 seemed a long way off. It is true that the government did not appear to have given the Olympics its full attention at the start (with then-Prime Minister Costas Simitis often looking like he wanted to get on with more serious business with less extravagant costs), but perhaps this is a human trait which is encapsulated so neatly in Parkinson’s Law – work expands to fill the time available for its completion. In this case, this resulted in a lack of urgency at the start, a grand design for major infrastructure projects and the best possible sports facilities (exemplified by the government’s stubborn and almost impulsive decision to commission what became Santiago Calatrava’s magnificent roof over the main stadium, despite IOC trepidations over the difficult deadline), and seemingly endless patience for the court cases brought by local residents, activist groups and municipalities against Olympic projects and the quarreling between construction companies over lucrative projects. By 2000, when the IOC warning came, the Simitis government was ready to focus on the colossal undertaking of the Olympics. The IOC «yellow card» also allowed the Socialists to bring back Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, a former conservative MP, to head the Olympic endeavor, in light of Angelopoulos-Daskalaki’s popularity with the IOC. Simitis himself, however, undertook overall responsibility for the Games. Obviously the preparations were all a work in progress, as the government sought the best way to coordinate the effort. In one of his very few Cabinet reshuffles, Simitis even appointed seven deputy ministers (in different ministries) to work on the Olympics, with mixed results. The problem, though, which both the government and the Athens 2004 committee had to face, was the burden of a bureaucracy which plagues every effort in Greece. Then there were the perennial problems of nepotism and other political favors which did not mean that only the best and the brightest (and essential) personnel were hired. Another problem was the always difficult balance between going by the book and improvising. On the one hand we have institutions and procedures, and on the other we have the personal initiative which has always stood the Greeks in good stead in a crisis. In Greece, procedure and initiative often work against each other rather than together, leading to a blurring of responsibilities as deadlines approach. The more that time runs out, the more we have to improvise. And the more we have to improvise, the more necessary it is to keep in mind that we must not stray too far from procedures or else we will lose our bearings completely (as the Ocalan story showed so dramatically, when government agencies improvised wildly). But in the end, despite the weaknesses of the Greek system, the desire to beat the clock, to be ready to put on a great Olympiad, spurred everyone involved to get things right. We might have a deadline that is harrowingly close, but a massive undertaking like the Olympics will always demand improvements, if not major work, until the last minute. Now the success of the Games is in the hands of the gods and the feet and arms and hearts of the athletes – all under a hugely intricate security network. Now that Greece has made the incredible effort to pull itself up by its bootstraps, it is crucial that everyone involved in public life keeps up the effort. We managed to get ready for the Games, we must now demand improvements in everything we deal with on a daily basis. We cannot allow bureaucracy and the lack of reforms to hold us back as a nation. If we are to exploit the power that the world’s attention gives us, we have to seek inspired solutions to our problems. We can cut the red tape that hampers productivity, we can focus on high-quality tourism now that the world sees Greece with new eyes, and we can dare to carry out reforms that will make us more efficient, the way our transport system has become. In short, the hare, in full stride, must not stop at the finishing line. He has to keep running, right out of the stadium – into the countryside and into the future.

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Enter your information below to receive our weekly newsletters with the latest insights, opinion pieces and current events straight to your inbox.

By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.