Time to get serious

Through a confluence of ancient facts and modern obsessions, which in other times would be a curse, good fortune has brought it about that Athens will host the Olympics in the late summer of 2004. And it was more the pursuit of the curse than the blessing that made the Greeks go after the Games in the first place. The bid for the 1996 Olympics was based on sentimentality and arrogance – this was the centennial of the modern Games, which had been reborn in Athens in 1896; Greece owned the ancient Olympics and therefore it was Greece’s right to host these Games, the argument went, from the prime minister down to the last Greek. The bid for 2004 was run by a strongly focused and effective team under Mrs Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, who has the skills to get what she wants (thankfully). After dropping the aggressive demand that we were owed the Games, we took a brief look at the excesses of Atlanta in 1996 and we went after the 2004 Games with the plaintive promise that we could save them from what they had become. And we went further, by showing the concrete evidence – the ready stadiums and the successful track and field world championships of 1997 – that we could stage the Games. Beyond that, we would give them the soul that we, heirs of the ancients, believed we had in abundance. Having got what we wanted, the chance to host the Games, we saw that this was not simply a matter of entitlement and inspiration. We now had to make them happen – in the real world. This is the world in which Greece has to keep up the effort to raise the living standards of its citizens closer to the EU average while keeping strict control of deficits, as most EU countries are struggling to do at a time of increased social demands and a slower economy. This is the world in which an incompetent state bureaucracy has to be pushed and pulled endlessly, with countless protocols having to be signed to get the slightest thing done – a world in which the media are either obsessing over the navel of the star-of-the-hour or look on everything from a jaded, condescending height, magnifying every problem, lamenting every difficulty and overlooking every success. Politics is subservient to personal ambitions (or even survival) and not to devising strategies that will lead to better days for the nation. Then we have the massive problems of a choking city that undertook to host the Games at a time when sometimes the most difficult thing is simply getting to work – because the streets are clogged either by traffic or the demonstration of the day. Yet this is the city that wanted to host an event which, it hopes, will bring millions more people to it. This is the real world in which the Games have to be prepared and held. This is a world, in other words, in which it is not Greece that will save the Olympics. Greece will have to work so hard to make the Olympics a success that in doing so it will save itself. In this way, our ancestors truly will have been valuable – beyond allowing us to usurp their achievements without their efforts. What we see day after day is a power struggle between the government and the organizing committee of Athens 2004. Both sides know well that a successful Olympiad will pour glory all over them and, in this small country with a dearth of homegrown success stories, the sky is the limit. Or the presidency, as some have tried to hold out before Mrs Angelopoulos-Daskalaki as something that they can help her achieve if, in the meantime, she agrees to buy what they are selling for the Olympics. She herself has never expressed any such ambitions, but she is obviously chafing at the amount of responsibility she has to share with the government and the state bureaucracy – a displeasure which then makes her the target of further conniving. As for Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos, the government’s Olympic point man, he spends most of his days acting prime ministerial but he is also pushing for things to get done. (It will be interesting to see what the score will be by the late summer of 2004.) Sometimes everyone seems to forget that glory will not be theirs alone if they succeed. In the Olympics, these people are paid to succeed. The gains of a great Games will go to Greece, but the loss of failure will also belong to Greece alone. Success, as the Greeks say, has many fathers, failure has one or two. So perhaps the current urgency suggests that all those directly involved have understood that it is not in their interests to fail. Now it is time for those who are involved indirectly – and that means everyone in the country – to realize that whether they wanted them or not the Olympics are an undertaking for Greece that is as big as a war that has to be won. There is no choice. In concrete terms, the speed with which construction projects are pushing ahead suggests that the Games will be held, and that most if not all of the major stadiums, housing facilities, roadworks and so on will have been tried and tested round about deadline. Perhaps all this might cost significantly more than if deadlines had been stuck to from the start of the preparations. But that, and whatever debt might remain, is no longer the issue. It is no longer the Games themselves that are the object of concern. Rather, it is that too many of us are seeing them as nothing but an annoyance, as if they were a promise that turned sour. But the benefits of the Games are everywhere to be seen. As the construction sector expected before Athens won the bid, things are being built all over Athens and even beyond Attica. The Olympics will make things worse in the short term but will improve them vastly later. Also, if it were not for the freak boom and bust of the Athens Stock Exchange, in which construction companies were swept up by the rise and fall in which every true value was destroyed, the Olympics’ impact on our economy (not least in employment) would be given due respect. But the Olympics today are something far bigger than the benefits that they can bring to an economy. In the whirlwind let loose on the world, when every economic theory is up for revision, when America is concentrating on the war against terrorism, when social problems are undermining even the most comfortable European countries with new urgency, nothing is stable. In this world, Greece is a small and entirely insignificant country. And yet, it is everywhere, because it is blessed to be burdened with the Olympics. The Olympics are the biggest peaceful, man-made event on the planet. And little Greece is in the thick of things (though too often it appears to forget that it is the host and not the owner of the Games). The Olympics are a peak from which we confront the coming flood. It is up to us to win or let the waters rise above us. We cannot just watch others make whatever effort they make, simply because they are being paid to do so. It is time for each to ask: What have I done to help the Olympics today?