Life after the Games

In the runup to the Athens Olympics, some of us wondered whether there would be life after 2004. The entire country was involved in a gigantic effort to get ready in time for the opening ceremony four years ago. Roads were being constructed, stadiums completed, volunteers trained, the November 17 terror gang dismantled – even the city’s notorious taxi drivers were being put through etiquette classes. The latest, massive infusion of European Union funding was programmed to end in 2004. Even the political landscape was undergoing massive change, with PASOK looking certain to lose the spring elections after being in power almost continually from 1981. All roads were leading to 2004, which was such a huge mountain we had to climb that no one seemed to think about what we’d find on the other side. We just needed to get to the summit, at all costs. The Games themselves, we should remember, went off flawlessly. Everything had been planned down to the last detail, often at the cost of inconveniencing Athens residents. But everyone took the changes in their stride, and the city and its people reveled in an atmosphere that managed to combine fun with great competence. Athens was beautiful and the Athenians opened their arms to the world and found themselves in a different city, a different country, a different mentality. As soon as the Games were over, though, it was clear that – without the International Olympic Committee’s incessant carping and with the Greeks no longer needing to put on their best face for the world – there was no plan for the day after. Everyone went back to business as usual. (Even the delivery trucks, whose absence from streets during rush hour had made Athens livable, made their vengeful return.) Aside from the major transportation projects that had transformed the city, the purely Olympic projects were left in limbo, like the concrete fossils of white elephants – the decaying, abandoned reminders of a collective dream that we could not interpret nor translate into reality. Four years later, the government agencies charged with the task of making use of the Olympic facilities are slowly getting to grips with the challenge. But what should have been the most impressive sites, such as the Olympic Stadium complex and the Saronic Gulf waterfront at Moschato, have not become the vibrant centers of sports, culture and commerce that each could be. They remain closed and deserted. Maybe in another four years the Olympic projects will be integrated into the life of Athens, offering residents and tourists exciting new venues that will, at last, become part of the ancient city’s endless history. Greece has benefited immensely from the Athens Games, in terms of infrastructure, international «brand» recognition, a new self-confidence in dealing with domestic and foreign policy issues, and, in the pre-Olympic boom, with great economic development. What is less often said is that the Olympics benefited just as much from Greece. The smallest and «poorest» country to host the modern Games, the biggest single peacetime event the world has ever seen, Greece staged the Olympics on a human scale. The birthplace of the ancient Games gave new credibility and a new aesthetic to an institution that had become jaded and too commercialized. And so, as the Beijing Olympics begin, as we get on with our lives, we can be proud that Athens gave new impetus to what just happens to be the greatest and longest-running celebration of life the world has seen. And we’ll be here to give the Games another push when they come round again.