SPORTS

Not in my back yard, say some Athenians

Athenians want the Olympics to come home, just not to their neighborhood. In the four years since Athens was awarded the 2004 Games, the sputtering and long-delayed preparations have had at least one saving grace for the Greeks: The Games born in Greek antiquity would return home for the first time since they were revived in 1896, giving the country a chance to display its ancient heritage and showcase its achievements at the dawn of the 21st century. But as construction crews begin work at the sites of the much-needed facilities and road projects needed to realize the Games, a new reality has set in. Residents across the city have banded together to try and stop the huge construction projects spanning the already congested capital, home to nearly 5 million people – or about half the country’s population of 11 million. A recent nationwide poll also found that organizing the 2004 Games ranked 18th on a list of priorities for Greeks, who listed unemployment, healthcare and education as their top concerns. The survey suggested that Greeks have bigger worries than the Olympic Games, with 47.9 percent describing the state of the nation as «very or quite bad.» As Athens expands, residents of the capital’s sprawling suburbs now say one of their priorities is to stop encroaching concrete and protect the environment for future generations. «We have the obligation, seeing the wrong choices made by the government, to resist so that we can protect our environment. This has to do with us and the next generations, and does not have to do with the 15 days of the Olympic Games,» said Aristidis Thomopoulos, city councilor in Alimos, a southern seaside suburb adjacent to a number of planned sports complexes. These include a sailing center, complexes at Athens’s old Hellenikon international airport – including facilities for basketball and field hockey – and venues for judo and tae kwon do. Thomopoulos and other activists in the southern suburbs have formed the Coordinating Committee for the Salvation of the Saronic Coastal Zone. They are not alone. Residents in the city’s northern, eastern and western suburbs have also filed appeals with the country’s highest administrative court, known as the Council of State, to stop the construction of sports venues and road projects. «Greeks are moody. Of course they want the Olympic Games, but at the same time they want, if possible, not to change anything in their area,» said Telemachos Hytiris, the government’s 2004 spokesman. «They are afraid that the changes will negatively affect them.» There are a total of six cases before the Council of State to stop sports venues, highway expansions and other infrastructure projects. One of the cases involves a table tennis and rhythmic gymnastics center in the western suburb of Galatsi, already months behind schedule. Although the mayor wants the facility, residents are trying to halt construction because they fear it may harm a Byzantine monument. Alimos residents have already won a small victory after the court granted a temporary injunction against the expansion of a coastal highway providing access to Hellenikon. In nearby Aghios Cosmas, people are trying to stop 84,581 square meters (910,452 square feet) of earth being dumped along the coastline to create a marina for the sailing center. «Building a marina as big as the one which is planned removes about 90 percent of the coastline from the municipality, where residents could swim,» Thomopoulos said. Government officials have blamed the court cases for many of the delays, which last year led the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to warn that the Games were in danger. Preparations are now pretty much back on track, but the IOC has warned that there can not be any more delays and has demanded contingency plans for all projects – especially roadworks. With less than 1,000 days remaining before the start of the Games, existing delays may not permit the government to build the high-quality permanent venues they hoped would remain as a legacy of the Olympics. They may now have to opt for prefabricated structures. «What we have worked hard to do, is to design venues that improve and revitalize the areas in which they are constructed for all of the citizens of Athens,» said Spyros Capralos, an executive director of organizers Athens 2004. «Our permanent venues are designed to grow with their local communities, so years after the Games, they will still be vital parts of their communities.»