Life and Games

In the week since the Olympics ended, we are discovering that there is life after the Games. The thrill of playing host to the world is still with us, but it is now settling into the satisfaction of a job well done and a new sense of self-confidence. We miss the fact that so many of our newfound friends from all over the world have returned home, but we still wander around our city as if discovering it for the first time. The trains run until later than they did before, changing our old routines and allowing the center of the city to live a little longer every night. Even though the guests have left, we feel that the party is not quite over. And we are confident that our friends will be back. This is most satisfying. But, in the euphoria, we should not lose our sense of what these Olympics meant for Greece and the world. In fact, as the «unforgettable, dream Games» – as IOC president Jacques Rogge described them – slip into history, we are all caught up in the nightmare of hundreds of children being held hostage by terrorist commandos in a school in southern Russia. In the confusion of troops storming the school, with scores of dead but with the fighting still not over, the Olympics yesterday truly did seem like a dream, an illusion, a glimpse of another – better – time. During the Games, and in the week after, the brutality in Iraq continued, with scores killed in fighting and many hostages executed. In Israel, mass terrorism struck again, with 16 killed in bus bombings. In Russia, suicide bombers struck in two crowds in Moscow and two planes were destroyed – before the hostage crisis struck Beslan in the vast country’s south. In Sudan, the Arab Janjaweed militia kept on killing, raping and attacking African civilians in what is now an 18-month campaign. The Olympic Truce may not have covered the earth with the wings of peace for the 16 days of the Games, but at least the Olympics showed us what the world can be like, for that short period of 16 days every four years. The competition between almost 11,000 athletes from 202 countries, all united by the single aim of taking part and exceeding their best, cheered on by spectators from home and every corner of the world, was rare affirmation of how so many different people and nations can unite with a common aim – excelling in performances that stretch the limits of our common humanity. The hosts provided some domestic drama, struggling to come to terms with the fact that their two top sprinters were forced to withdraw from the Games after evading mandatory doping tests. Also, the not infrequent boos for athletes and teams competing against Greeks betrayed a certain difficulty in keeping a civilized gloss on the primal rivalry that drove our ancestors to invent competitive sport in the first place. But these were the most minor of minor issues which, in their own way, showed just how well the Games went. And there was the added thrill of the Olympics touching base in the land of their birth nearly 3,000 years ago, in the city of their resurrection 108 years ago. Not only was Athens ready, with its new roads, stadiums and transport system, not only were the events perfectly organized, but the city and its residents also outdid themselves. Like an athlete who is inspired by the circumstances to break a world record, the Greeks surpassed every expectation. And there was the magic of Athens living a dream like Cinderella, where its own residents woke up to find themselves in a city that was transformed. And if they were slow to see this, they saw it in the surprised eyes of their visitors. Suddenly the city had a big, public, open heart. People were partying in the streets. None of this happened by chance, and it is a measure of how engrossed in its own misery the Greek press is that no one was keeping up with the long-term planning and overall concept behind the unification of Athens’s archaeological areas, the concerts, art exhibitions and street performances organized by Athens Municipality. We still don’t know exactly how much the Games will cost, with the latest estimates putting the total cost at 7 billion euros. This, however, includes many projects that leave a legacy of a city with greater productivity and a greater quality of life. So, when seen against a public debt that is expected to reach 200 billion euros at the end of this year, the money spent on the Games and their preparations would appear to be the best possible investment of these funds. Given the success of these unique Games, we can only wonder how far they have gone toward rebranding Greece in the eyes of the world (to use that very unsexy jargon), from an also-ran to a gold medalist, from a country unprepared for anything and mildly dangerous to a dream destination with good transport and facilities. In the end, everyone was surprised by the success of the Games. So much so that we found several foreign journalists declaring sygnomi and efharisto, introducing their readers to the Greek for «sorry» and «thanks» as they packed their bags for their next assignment. This is, of course, the perfect ending to the fairy tale we were all sold on. After the heartbreak of the International Olympic Committee’s rejecting Athens’s bid to host the centennial of the Olympics’ revival in 1996, we overcame our sorrow with the hard preparations that led to the victorious bid for the 2004 Games. This was then followed by delays in preparations and a dramatic buildup of tension when the IOC warned in 2000 that it would strip Athens of the Games if it didn’t shape up. And then, with the whole world watching, not only was Athens ready, but it was also beautiful and sophisticated, and the opening and closing ceremonies were inspired and humorous and profound. There was nothing disorganized or last-minute about any of this. A lot of work went into the Games for a very long time. And the volunteers alone showed the depth of talent, willingness to work and wealth of resources in the country that was waiting for an opportunity to shine. So why the surprise? The venue and infrastructure work were, of course, delayed. If they had not been, the story would have been written in another way. But delays did not have to mean that the projects would never be ready. Parkinson’s Law, as immutable as any of Newton’s principles, encapsulates the experience of every Olympic city: Work expands to fill the time available for its completion. Maybe the world’s news media, both local and foreign, are not aware of this. Or maybe they were so taken by their own preconceptions – and their complicated interaction, as each echoes the other – that reality was not allowed to intrude on the story. The Greek papers, always losing the forest for the trees, kept going on about how delayed everything was and how expensive. This was picked up by the foreign press and bounced back with greater intensity. By the time every major and minor news medium had done the story, in order to keep up with everyone else, the Games were upon us, with the Greeks feeling what to them appeared to be the world’s condescension. Then the foreign media added the issue of security, the code word for fear of terrorism. In a world in which no place and no one can ever be completely safe, this became a stick with which to beat the Greeks who, because of the real or perceived delays in preparations, were already a whipping boy. The Greeks did everything that was asked of them, and more, to make everyone feel that security was their top priority. This ranged from the highly dramatic use of warplanes and an airship to protect Athens to cooperating with the intelligence service of many countries to track and anticipate any threat to the Games. Fortunately, everything went well here, too. Whether this was because Athens had been fortified to such an extent or because the terrorists had just never planned to strike here, we will probably never know. We can only rejoice at the fact that our city was an oasis of peace and tranquility, of joy and friendship, for the Games. It took an obviously demented exhibitionist, a defrocked Irish priest, to disrupt the men’s marathon in the very last minutes of the 16-day Games and show how vulnerable any public event anywhere can be. We were lucky. And we need to remember that. The world’s finest athletes were able to do what they had come for – to compete in an environment of safety and friendship and to mingle with their fellow athletes and supporters from all over the world. The facilities and the city’s infrastructure were there to serve this need and they did it admirably. This was the achievement of Athens, its people and the organizers of the Games. Greece’s victory is both the successful outcome of the Games and the experience which should help us overcome challenges that can seldom be as big as this one was. But perhaps the greatest victory of all was in seeing the Olympics, with which we have such a unique relationship, leaving Athens for Beijing stronger than they came. Countless children today dream of taking part and winning in future Olympiads. In a world that holds so little joy or peace or certainty, as the dead children in Beslan testify, bringing all the people of the planet together every four years for a few days of Games might just be the most precious thing humanity can do.

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