Greece in the 28th Olympiad

In antiquity, Olympiads used to be a measure of time for the Greeks, providing a fixed date in the endless rush of events. They would date events in relation to the four-year period between Olympic Games during which the event occurred. The start of the Beijing Games this coming Friday signals the end of «the years of the 28th Olympiad of the modern Games,» which were held in Athens in 2004. So this is a good time to evaluate our country and ourselves, to try figure out who we were and what we became in those four years. The Athens Games were a success, and, as time passes, this is ever more evident. More than 10,000 athletes from 202 countries competed in ideal conditions and in total security in a city and country that functioned flawlessly and displayed great hospitality. As Kathimerini wrote in an editorial just hours before the closing ceremony: «We showed, to ourselves first, that we could achieve great aims if we displayed dedication, concentration and persistence. We proved, also, to the astonished international community that the stereotype of undisciplined and unreliable Greeks was just a stereotype, in other words, shallow and silly.» But from that day it was clear that Greece’s great challenge would concern what it would do with the momentum of the Games, which it had paid for dearly in terms of the cost of facilities and services. Four years later, we see an inexplicable delay in making use of most of the projects that were built for the Olympics. And it is this sorry sight that dominates conversations, especially when we consider the 11.2 billion euros (officially, at least) that we paid for the Games. The major infrastructure projects that were completed in time for the Olympiad, after decades of delays, have become part of our daily life and we don’t consider them part of 2004’s legacy. Instead we see the tram, which has not been embraced by Athenians, chugging along as the symbol of what the Olympics left behind. The exorbitantly expensive security system also seems like money spent for only a few weeks. It is more difficult to estimate how the Olympics changed the world’s view of Greece. Gone are the days when every educated person in the world knew about the Greeks and their illustrious ancestors. For the last generation or two, very few people outside Europe know or care about these issues. They all have their own history and civilization. This means that most of the viewers of the Athens 2004 Games were learning about Greece for the first time. And what they saw was wonderful: a beautiful country, full of great archaeological sites, with hospitable and capable people and a history that tied the country and its residents directly to the ancient Olympics. But no sooner had the Games ended, and visitors began to come to Greece to experience what they had seen on television, when we began to act as if the whole Olympic effort had exhausted us. We returned to bad old habits – going after what is easy, rather than what is good. Although we had paid a huge price to become known to the whole world, we did not continue to improve our infrastructure and behavior, not only for the benefit of tourists but for ourselves as well. Because the challenge is to make our country more functional by raising productivity, by putting an end to wastefulness and social inequality and by improving our education system. With the Olympics, Greece showed that it can succeed, and this seems to have given us a slightly greater sense of self-confidence, both at home and in our international relations. One can only wonder how we would have been now if we had not hosted the Games. The international economic crisis and the chronic problems in domestic politics and the economy have created a climate of pessimism. But we have every right to hope that, although the Olympics did not solve all of Greece’s problems, they did raise us to a higher category. And they allow us to believe that we can be winners. As long as every Olympiad finds us in better shape – neither worse nor in the same place.