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Monday, August 25, 2003

Our Opinion

Blown Away

The ancient Greeks had a word for it, of course. Hubris. And while it is also a word used all the time by modern Greeks, it seems that somewhere between Aeschylean Athens and contemporary Euroland, the original meaning has been lost in translation. On October 15, 2001, when the first edition of went online, the first article in that first edition was by Makis Aperghis, secretary general of the Hellenic Society for the Protection of Nature. It was about the attempt by the Greek government to turn Schinias, at the eastern end of the Marathon plain and, according to Aperghis, “one of the few remaining havens of biodiversity in Attica,” into the rowing center for the 2004 Olympics (see “The Second Battle of Marathon, 2001 CE,”, October 15, 2001).

The government was opposed by a coalition of the four major environmental groups in Greece — the World Wildlife Fund, the Hellenic Ornithological Society, the Elliniki Etairia, and the Hellenic Society for the Protection of Nature — which was trying to save a wetland that was home to roughly 176 species of birds (most of them protected by the EU or international conventions), 4,000 species of insects, more than 350 species of flowering plants (some rare), several threatened species of reptiles and amphibians, and even one locally endemic freshwater fish (a species, in other words, that existed nowhere else in the world). In addition to the ecological issues, however, Schinias was also a site of archeological and historical import, since it was on its shores that, in 490 BCE, the Persians landed their force of 20,000-30,000 soldiers who then marched some three kilometers across the plain to face an Athenian army of 10,000 men in what became the Battle of Marathon (which, indeed, culminated on Schinias beach, where the Persians suffered many losses). The government, in other words, sought to build its Olympic rowing center on part of the battlefield — which is why it was also opposed by a broad range of scholarly and professional organizations that included the Archeological Society of Greece and the Academy of Athens.

In the end, as we all know, the government won. “Victory” in this instance meaning ecological despoliation and contempt for history and culture, but, since it was all done in the name of that uniquely modern Greek fetish called the “Olympics,” the end apparently more than justified the means. Fortunately, this “Second Battle of Marathon” waged by ecologists and archeologists managed to force the government to alter its initial plans quite substantially. Artificial lakes and facilities have been moved to one end of the Schinias wetland, while tavernas, bars, and similar facilities in the area have been banned. In addition, the Olympic slalom course has been entirely relocated. Still, Schinias has been cynically sacrificed although more appropriate venues have always been available (environmentalists have consistently proposed Yliki, a lake only 77 kilometers from Athens). And yet, this is not the end of the story, since it seems that the one factor not taken into account by the government’s Olympian arrogance was Schinias itself.

One would think human beings would have learned the cost by now of ignoring the environment’s own clear, and organic, self-definitions. From Los Angeles (a desert disguised as a city), to the Aral Sea (killed by Soviet ideas of agriculture that were as toxic as Soviet notions of socialism), to the almost infinite ecocides perpetrated by the human race over the last two centuries, it seems that we still can’t keep from rushing in where angels should fear to tread. Which is why when nature does occasionally take its revenge, it fills us with a deep, and deeply satisfying, sense of almost primeval justice.

“Greece’s annual summer winds,” Theodora Tongas reported in the English edition of Kathimerini on August 7, “turned a pre-Olympic rowing competition into a challenge to stay afloat yesterday as waves swamped boats and forced one team to swim across the finish line.” Tongas was being kind, part of the Greek consensus, perhaps, not to speak (overly) ill of “our” Olympics. Reuters, on the other hand, did not mince words. Its correspondent, Daniel Howden, began his report (August 6) with a considerably punchier lead: “Hopes for a faultless start to venue tests for the 2004 Athens Olympics sank without trace on Wednesday as rowers were submerged in rough waters on the first day of racing at a controversial new complex.”

Tongas continued: “The weather troubles — fierce northerlies known locally as the meltemia — were a worrisome start to a series of important test events held to assess any venue revisions needed before next year’s Olympics. The start of the World Junior Rowing Championships was moved two hours earlier to 6:30 a.m. to try to avoid the winds that normally intensify during the day.” It seems that somebody had miscalculated, and that Schinias — where the World Junior Rowing Championships were held — has always been “slightly” windblown. To quote Howden again, “The [Schinias] complex — built in the face of ferocious opposition from conservationists and archaeologists, due to local wetlands and antiquities — is now under fire from rowers as well.” In the words of Team USA member Stephen Newark, cited in Tongas’s piece, “It was like rowing in the ocean….” The most colorful reaction — if a tad overly retributive — came from Australian rower Daniel Rollinson, however, who was quoted by Anthee Carassava in The New York Times (“Doubts Mount in Athens Over Preparations for 2004 Olympics,” August 17) as suggesting, “The person who designed this course should be strangled.”

So much for messing with Mother Nature — or, more accurately, trying to pull a fast one on her. The fact is, Schinias’s environmental conditions have always been obvious: there is a windfarm near the Olympic site! Well, then, the reader will rightly ask, is everyone in the government and the Hellenic Olympic Committee an idiot? Not everyone. But power is a treacherous cocktail: it dulls the mind before it even gets to work on the conscience. Actually, we think that stupidity had nothing to do with it. Quite the opposite, we suspect that the government and the HOC were simply too clever by half. They obviously wanted to develop the area around Schinias and thought they could quietly get away with it, with nobody noticing. It was only after environmentalists and scholars got into the fray, however, that a merely silly decision became inimitably foolhardy (and destructive) because, at that point, the government’s “prestige” was at stake, and no Greek government — not even an unusually rational one like Mr. Simitis’s — can stand to have its public “esteem” devalued. And so, it hunkered down. It was not going to allow a “rabble” of ecologists and academics tell it what was best for the Olympics, let alone the country.

The result was displayed earlier this month for all the world to see: gale-force winds of almost 65 kilometers an hour at a rowing competition. International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge immediately sped to the defense of the Greeks. “Rowing is weather-sensitive,” Mr. Rogge averred (with Olympian hauteur), “you have to cope with it.” British rower James Cracknell didn’t quite see it that way, however; he told London’s Daily Telegraph that Greek organizers — and, by implication, Mr. Rogge himself — were guilty of practicing the “ostrich technique of burying their heads in the sand.” In fact, “fishermen in this area of Greece [Schinias] take August off as it is too windy to fish,” Mr. Cracknell added sardonically, “so it looks as if we are in for a rough ride next year.”

The most stunning, world-class example of the “ostrich technique,” however, was exhibited by Vassilis Lykomitros, manager of this year’s disastrous World Junior Rowing Championships at Schinias. “For us, it was a great test,” Mr. Lykomitros boasted with breathtaking amour-propre, “because it showed us the worst-case scenario”! As for, we confess that we’re already looking forward to next year’s Olympic competition. It should be obvious at this point that we already have our favorite. We’ll be at Schinias come hell or — as is more likely — high water, yelling our guts out, rooting for Mother Nature to win her rematch against the Greek government.

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