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Friday, October 14, 2005

Sports

The Day(s) After


“Let me tell you, my friend,” Kimôn Koulourês said, leaning over and adopting a confidential tone but speaking loudly enough for everyone to hear, “I built this stadium on my own.” We were seated in the plush VIP section of Athens’s Olympic Stadium in early August this past summer, waiting for the start of a preseason soccer game between Panathênaikos Athens and Real Zaragossa. Koulourês was referring to his tenure as undersecretary of sport between 1981 and 1985 when the stadium was completed with an eye to Greece’s bid for the 1996 Olympics. For Koulourês, who has spent 40 years in Greek politics, his role in overseeing the completion of the stadium remains a major achievement.

A roar from the 30,000-plus crowd inside the stadium interrupted our conversation. The two teams had taken the field, and the fans were getting a first look at the players acquired by Panathênaikos over the summer transfer season, in a bid to challenge the reigning champions and perennial rivals, Olympiakos Piraeus. As I took my seat, I could not but think back to the last time I was in the stadium, watching the track-and-field events of the Athens Olympics. There were few signs of the stadium’s recent past, aside from the famous Calatrava-designed roof. The column atop of which the Olympic flame burned stood silently behind one of the goals, pushed to the background by the green-and-white banners and flags of the Panathênaikos faithful. A faded Athens 2004 sign on the track that encircled the soccer field was just visible.

The transformation of the main Athens 2004 venue back into a soccer pitch typified the fate of the numerous facilities built in the capital to host the Olympics. For those that had been used for the country’s two most popular sports, soccer and basketball, it was business as usual a year later. In the case of the other facilities, however, there was no business whatsoever—a worrying prospect given that their post-Olympic use was supposed to pay in part for the whopping €9 ($11.25) billion debt officially left by the games. The plan was—in fact, is, because nothing has happened yet—to lease or reassign some facilities to the private sector as a way to draw down some of the debt, while using the rest to promote sporting and leisure activities for the public.

Instead, a year after the games, most facilities remained unused and locked up. They include those at the Ellênikon complex, which hosted baseball, basketball, fencing, field hockey, softball, volleyball, and water sports, and cost €173 ($216) million; the Markopoulo shooting range (€43 [$54] million); the Schinias rowing facility (€106 [$132.5] million); and the indoor arenas for wrestling at Nikaia (€38 [$47.5] million) and weightlifting at Nea Liosia (€69 [$86] million). The beach-volleyball facility at Falêro has been used once for an international volleyball tournament and several times for concerts. Reporters who have managed to get past the padlocked gates have witnessed a total state of abandonment, with trash piled up, weeds overgrowing, metal rusting, and other signs of neglect. Worse still, the government has disclosed that it is paying €43 ($54) million a year for their “upkeep”—which, of course, doesn’t take into account the actual cost of reversing the damage.

Rather than owning up to dragging its feet, the government pretends that all is well. In what must be one of the most grotesque misrepresentations of reality during its 15-month tenure in office, it organized a first-anniversary series of events ironically labeled (although the irony was inadvertent and apparently lost on the government), “Open Stadiums—Places of Celebration—Way of Life,” which were held at the Olympic Stadium and Falêro. They involved a “birthday party” at the stadium, attended by schoolchildren bused in from their summer camps, and a songfest (featuring—who else but Greece’s current unanimous “Number 1”?—Elena Paparizou, the winner of this year’s Eurovision contest) at Falêro’s newly redesigned beach-volleyball-cum-concert-hall facility.

The Olympic stadium “celebrations,” which included 150 children blowing out candles on an “Olympic” cake, were evidently a source of inspiration to Deputy Culture Minister Fanê Pallê-Petralia. “These stadium open-days,” she declared, “will be held next year with children from all schools—not only in Attica—which enjoy athletics and Olympic sports. Celebration of the Olympics will continue.” But what about the facilities and the Olympic debt?, reporters asked. Brought down to earth, Petralia blithely assured everyone that the government had worked to repair and maintain the facilities, and was proceeding apace with a “plan” for their public and private use in the future. “This was a dream Olympics we held,” she said proudly, “in which the sole sponsor was the Greek taxpaying public, which is why it is time for citizens to reap the benefit. Our approach is people-centered.”

Opposition deputies and newspaper columnists speaking for many of the people ostensibly benefiting from this people-centered approach were unimpressed by Petralia’s flights of fancy. There was a chorus of criticism leveled against the government throughout early August. The government, in turn, accused the current opposition party, PASOK, of letting the costs of construction run rampant in the runup to the Olympics during its tenure in power, and claimed it was working hard to secure the facilities’ future, including leasing options and use of some areas for “commercial activities.”

It would be tempting to blame both major parties for Greece’s massive Olympic hangover. The government, after all, either runs things (as best it can) or at least has a finger in the pie in all Greek public projects. Yet, there is more to the current, Olympic-size problem than the usual incompetence of public officials, many of whom owe their positions to cronyism, nepotism, and place of birth (to mention only the more egregious forms of Greek political clientelism). The reason for the hangover’s size is the same as that which earned Greece universal acclaim for organizing such a spectacular event in the first place: the enormous sense of responsibility of the Greeks to their ancient Olympic heritage, magnified (or complicated) by their unabating insecurity over their relatively recent status as a “modern” European nation. These two extremely potent factors combined to ensure the last-minute completion of preparations for and successful execution of the games. In 2004, the Greeks managed to confound their critics, who consistently underestimated, or mocked, the significance of the Olympics to modern Greek identity.

By the same token, however, Greeks are now confusing themselves by their failure to follow up with plans to take advantage of their Olympic facilities a year later. Nevertheless, the answer to that apparent confusion is tautologically simple: there is no Olympic challenge involved in the post-Olympic era. There is nothing particularly inspiring or heroic, in other words, about leasing facilities or reconfiguring them for “commercial activities,” whatever that means. Moreover, there is no longer an international spotlight on Greece, as there was before and during the Olympics. While the foreign media reported briefly on the padlocked stadiums, they quickly moved on to other, more important maters.

At the end of the first Athens Olympiad in 1896, the success of those games brought calls to make Greece the permanent venue of the Olympics or, failing that, the venue of quadrennial interim games, which in fact took place only once, in 1906. A problem in preparing the 2004 games—aside from the delays that added to the costs—was the decision to construct permanent rather than temporary facilities. No one criticized this judgment at the time, believing it was worth it if Greece was to impress the world—which Greece did, but now it is stuck with facilities that are difficult to recycle into other uses. Therefore, perhaps Greece should echo its post-1896 experience and offer to host another form of interim Olympics, or other kinds of sporting events. Some observers have suggested that Greece should try to revive the Nemean or Pythian games since the Olympics are clearly not going to return to Greece permanently.

While this might seem to be an idealistic proposal, it is actually a realistic strategy: Greek politicians are better at building stadiums for major international events than at figuring out what to do with them afterward. The 1896 games produced the Panathênaic Stadium; the bid for the 1996 games produced the Olympic Stadium; the preparations for 2004 led to the Olympic Stadium’s refurbishment and Calatrava roof. If those and other facilities cannot be used profitably for non-sporting activities, Greece should make a virtue of necessity and work toward using them more often. Sugarcoating the proposal with some allusion to the Olympic or any other ancient games may make it palatable to the international sports community. It would certainly resonate in Greece: as Athens 2004 and post-2004 have demonstrated, Greeks are infinitely better at rallying around their ancient athletic heritage than at dealing with their contemporary sporting facilities.

Alexander Kitroeff teaches history at Haverford College and is a contributing editor to greekworks.com, which published his most recent book, Wrestling With the Ancients: Modern Greek Identity and the Olympics.
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