Citizens take ownership of Olympic complex

There is something quite touching about the scenes that have been unfolding every day over the past few weeks at the Olympic Stadium Complex (OAKA) in the northern Athenian suburb of Maroussi. Families, couples,teenagers and lone joggers provide a hint of what this architectural gem revamped by Catalan architect Santiago Calatrava could have been developed into.

OAKA houses the main soccer arena, an indoor basketball arena, a velodrome and tennis courts, among other sporting venues, as well as a vast tract of open space with a number of water features (sadly now out of operation) and a lengthy colonnade. But since the end of the 2004 Athens Olympic Games the entire complex has been seriously neglected and allowed to fall into disrepair and into the hands of vandals.

Yet the citizens of Athens appear happy to ignore what country they live in and choose OAKA for their leisure time and their Sunday afternoon outings, taking a walk with their children, riding their bicycles or just hanging out with friends. They pretend not to see the destruction, the graffiti that mars walls and architectural installations that cost millions of euros to create, and the trash that has piled up against dying trees and empty flowerbeds. This is “their” park, even though successive governments have deprived them of what they ought to have and deserve.

The crowds of people that have been coming to OAKA over the past few weeks may also be attributed to the efforts of a small group of volunteers who started a campaign of Facebook last year where fun group outings to OAKA were combined with cleanup efforts.

Vassilis, a founding member of the campaign named “Let’s Make OAKA Our Own Central Park,” confirms that there has been a big rise in the number of visitors to the park in the past few weeks.

“We’re seeing a lot of kids, roller-bladers, cyclists, runners and people just taking their children out for a stroll,” he says, declining to give his last name.

“The current management of the site has a cleanup crew, but they only do the big stuff. Quite a bit of trash is beginning to build up again around the trees we had cleaned up and cared for with fertilizer and fresh soil, so we are now getting ready to go back,” he adds, saying that the volunteers will be restarting their activities after a hiatus of a few months.

Vassilis had made several attempts to work with the previous management of OAKA, but without result.

“The entire experience was very disappointing,” he says. “When [former wrestler] Petros Galaktopoulos took over as president of the board in September last year, he came to us on October 28. There has been nothing since. To be fair, we didn’t try to make any coordinated effort either and a few months later we became kind of scattered. I’m hoping that we will get back together, because there’s a lot of work to be done.”

It’s been nine years since Athens hosted the Olympic Games, but authorities are still trying to decide what to do with OAKA, despite the fact that it could have been developed into a Olympic tourism attraction the day after the Games and transformed into an important source of revenue for the state.

Needless to say, dozens of studies have been commissioned, carried out and paid for regarding the potential development of the facilities.

In an April interview with Kathimerini’s Spyridoula Spanea, former Deputy Sports Minister Yiannis Ioannidis had said, “We will explore how other Olympic stadiums around the world operate and how the countries managed to hold onto them without having to sell them.”

At another point of the interview, Ioannidis conceded that the OAKA “could become a tourism hub where tourists can see the facilities that were such an achievement for a small country like Greece. On the other hand, athletic events could be held at all the facilities so that foreign athletes could be like ambassadors for promoting the country.”

The fact that OAKA has a lot of financial problems is old news, but surely some money could be put aside to clean up and maintain the premises, that may – if developed – bring back twice or even three times as much in revenues.

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