A state of denial

Some demon is always pursuing the Greeks, never allowing us to rest for a moment, to bask in triumph or give up in defeat. In victory we manage to tear ourselves apart in civil strife, as we most recently did after World War II. In defeat we fight on and on, until we win. It is as if we are in a constant state of denial. We can accept neither victory nor defeat without trying immediately to overturn it. We have to be in a permanent state of flux. If things are easy we make them hard. If they are difficult, we come through with flying colors. We need only look at the seminal event of the Athens 2004 Olympics, which seem to be light years away even though a month ago they were still on. When we had seven years to prepare we waited until we had only four in which to get the same amount of work done. When no one thought we would get it right, we pulled off a great Games. And then, no sooner had the Olympic athletes left, and while the Paralympics were still running, the familiar high-pitched whine of protests reasserted itself. Two retired judges who were on a three-member audit committee overseeing the Olympic preparations went public with their claims of mismanagement. The two were replaced in July, just before the Games, when the government decided that serving judges and not retirees should serve on the audit council. These two had signed the audit for 2001 which was made public on Wednesday and which claimed chaotic hiring procedures, high salaries and delayed signing of sponsor contracts, among other allegations. The organizing committee and government said that everything had been above board, with the organizers stressing that Greek law and EU rules had been adhered to. Of course, we are all waiting for the full accounting of the Athens 2004 Organizing Committee’s finances to be presented, but kicking up such a fuss when the Paralaympics were still in town seemed a little churlish, to say the least. But, given the prophecies of doom that we Greeks ourselves were declaring to anyone who would listen (and everyone was listening) before the Games, we should have expected that the success of the Games would not deter protests and complaints. The two esteemed former judges might be right, and the third judge who disagreed with them and is still on the audit committee might have been wrong, but that is not the point. What is important is that we are able to savor a moment of triumph with the necessary spice of conspiracy and skullduggery that make this sunny country so mysterious and interesting. But the Athens Olympics are a microcosm – a controlled laboratory environment, if you will – of Greece in general. There is always a serpent in the garden, a worm in the apple. Perhaps the Costas Kenteris-Katerina Thanou affair on the eve of the Olympics is a microcosm within that microcosm, a play within a play. And like all things that boiled down to their essence, it distills so much of what is wrong in public life here. On the surface, there appears to be a doping problem with the two sprinters – the men’s 200-meter gold medalist from 2000 and women’s 100-meter silver medalist – as, again on the surface, they seem to have gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid undergoing doping control tests on August 12, the day before their country’s own Olympic Games. They say they did nothing wrong and did not know about the deadline IOC officials had set. That would sound a lot more convincing if anti-doping inspectors had managed to find the two sprinters on other occasions when they went looking for them. It seems odd that there should be such an aura of mystery around two athletes who were obliged to let sports officials know where they were and to be where they said they were. So either our sprinters were cheats or they were stupid. But, having managed to sow confusion by claiming their innocence – in other words leaving us to guess whether they are guilty or stupid – they seem to feel no fear of public opprobrium or any likely punishment from the ongoing judicial probe. We have mentioned this before, that in Greece the worst thing you can do if accused of wrongdoing is to confess: Because if you do no one will respect you for coming clean, instead they will damn you for the crime while feeling grateful that you have made it so much easier for them to condemn you by eradicating any shadow of doubt. As it is, if you say you are innocent – even in the face of the strongest evidence – enough people will give you the benefit of the doubt to allow you to keep your head high in society. And there were certainly many Greeks who would not have minded if these two athletes (and indeed any others) had been killing themselves with illegal performance-enhancing substances, as long as they kept racking up the victories. What they do not seem to take into account, though, is that the cloud of suspicion that follows Kenteris and Thanou now falls on other Greek athletes. That is why it is such a pleasure to see our women’s 400-meter hurdles gold medalist Fani Halkia already out on the world track circuit, unlike most previous Greek gold medalists who showed up only for world championships and Olympics. But if the Olympics were a microcosm of our collective behavior patterns, the way this government and the previous one handled the issue of public finances is the macrocosm of our problematic habits. Just as there was always a hint of suspicion that Kenteris and Thanou were too good to be true, there were always whispers at how the PASOK government had managed to get the Greek economy into shape to the extent that the country could join the single European currency. There were sly whispers at what the opposition and some newspapers, including this one, criticized as creative accounting over the past few years. But, like Kenteris winning gold, the whispers were just whispers, whereas the results were solid – shiny new euro coins clinking away in our pockets like those of our partners in Germany, France, Italy and several other mighty European countries. We may have had our suspicions, but just as we expected that the world anti-doping rules were our guarantee that our sprinters were clean, we believed that the EU’s statistical services and other watchdogs were the guarantee that our accounting was OK. And who wanted to really dwell on this, to poke his finger into the balloon? Our entry into the eurozone was a triumph, the greatest achievement since Greece’s accession to what we now call the European Union in 1981. We were proud that we had managed this with our sacrifices. It was the culmination of years of austerity. After this, we thought, we might deserve a few years of joy. Unfortunately, though, that is not to be. The conservatives might be aiming to be good housekeepers and that is why they are emptying every skeleton from its cupboard, but the unhappy result is that the years of austerity will continue and Greece’s reputation, after the glory of the Olympics, has taken a serious knock. It is almost as if a top athlete made a public confession that he had been taking performance-enhancing substances for years. The conservative government, which won elections in March, declared on Wednesday that from 2000 to 2004 the PASOK government had been presenting cooked books to the world. It said that the deficit in 2000 should have been 4.1 percent of GDP (not PASOK’s 2.0 percent), in 2001 3.7 percent (not 1.2 percent), in 2002 3.7 percent (not 1.7 percent), in 2003 4.6 percent (not 0.9 percent), and in 2004 5.3 percent (not 0.8 percent). The revision stems mainly from there being less reserves in social security funds than previously stated and by burdening the books with all the defense spending incurred in the past years. If one considers that this amounted to 1.9 percent of GDP in 2000, one can see that the previous government’s effort to spread defense expenditures over as great an area and timespan as possible may have been wily but it was also understandable. Honesty is, of course, always the best policy, and having a government indulge in creative accounting is unacceptable and tantamount to telling citizens to do the same (or does the government do this because its citizens do?). But now Greece has come clean in an orgy of self-flagellation that may just go in the opposite direction, burdening the country with a negative image that it had paid so much to try to shake off. Let’s not forget that much of the projected 5.3 percent of GDP deficit for 2004 can be attributed to our hosting the Olympic Games in a dangerous world. It is not as if Greece (or the Greeks) stole the money. What we did was borrow more than we should have and we are now going to pay it back, probably at a higher rate and under constant supervision from the EU. This government, taking a page from its predecessor, only went as far as revising figures from 2000 onward, so as not to question the figures of 1998 and 1999 with which Greece entered the eurozone. But the EU is now sending inspectors to look at that time as well. It is said that Greece’s membership of the eurozone is not in question. What is certain is that we will just keep veering from one opposite to the other, from triumph to defeat and back again, from a government that subjugates everything to political instinct to one that has no sense of politics. What is not certain is whether we will learn that it is best to come clean or whether, as we always have, to hide the truth and allow us to walk with our head high in the cloud of uncertainty.

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