Residents of Games’ birthplace feel left out

OLYMPIA – Nestling among lush olive groves and Cypress trees, Olympia nowadays is a far cry from the bustling ancient Greek sports capital which was the site of the first Olympics some 2,800 years ago. With the Olympic Games returning to Greece in just a year, the sleepy town, with its spectacular ancient Olympic stadium, track and temples, might have expected a starring role in the proceedings. But no such role has been offered, says the mayor of Olympia. «There is nothing happening in Olympia ahead of or during the 2004 Olympics,» Yiannis Skoularikis told Reuters. «The citizens are up in arms as we, the birthplace of the Games, have no role whatsoever in the 2004 Olympics. «Athens Games organizers (ATHOC) and even the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have no role for Olympia. They come here every two years for the torch-lighting ceremony of the Summer and Winter Games and then they disappear again,» he said. Olympia hosted the ancient Games every four years, from at least 776 BC until they were banned in AD 393 by the Roman Emperor Theodosius, who decried them as a pagan festival. Skoularikis’s comments echo widespread concerns from other regions outside Athens that the Olympics, coming to Greece for the first time since their modern revival in 1896, will benefit only the capital where nearly all the events are taking place. It is a complaint that has been heard in nearly every country that has staged an Olympics. The nation pays but the city that hosts the Games is the only big winner, critics say. In Greece, there is a special poignancy that the events will not, or cannot because of the demands of television and logistical problems, be spread throughout the nation. If there is resentment in Olympia, just four hours’ drive from Athens, the sense of isolation and exclusion is even greater in the many islands and mountain areas of Greece. «If the Games are going to carry the name of our town, then we have to have the appropriate role in the world’s biggest sporting event,» Mayor Skoularikis said. «Otherwise, they should not be called the Olympics.» He looks on with envy as Athens undergoes its biggest-ever facelift as it rushes to prepare for the Games, which open on August 13 next year. Some 4 million of the country’s population of 11 million live in the sprawling capital, which will welcome hundreds of thousands of visitors with a new airport, new tram and suburban rail lines, an extended road network and improved services. For the cities of Patras, Volos, Iraklion and Thessaloniki, which will hold the only out-of-Athens competitions – soccer-qualifying matches – their bit-part roles are not enough. «We want the Games to be a success but for us hosting just a group of soccer matches is a bit degrading,» said a city council member in Thessaloniki, Greece’s second-largest city. He said the northern port, with some 1.5 million residents, would gladly co-host the first round of the soccer competition but as Greece’s commercial gateway to the Balkans, it should have had a greater part in the Games. «Everyone keeps telling us the Games are a national bet we have to win but no tells us that it’s mainly Athens that will gain from these Olympics,» said the official, who did not want to be named. «There will be people going from here to Athens as volunteers and as spectators but that number would be much bigger if our city’s involvement were greater,» he said. Surprisingly, Greeks, renowned for their last-minute booking habits, have rushed to buy tickets for the Games more than a year before they start. Initial figures show they have purchased more than 80 percent of the 591,000 tickets already sold. But more than three-quarters of the buyers are from Athens compared to a mere 5 percent from Thessaloniki. Sales to the Aegean islands and Crete represent only 2 percent of the total. The country’s poorest region, Epirus, has also bought only 2 percent, or some 5,000 tickets. «Considering that Athens has about half of the country’s population, this high percentage of Athenians buying tickets is no surprise,» an ATHOC official told Reuters. «But we are confident that during the Games, all of Greece will be watching from the grandstands.»