Greece's Olympic spirit dims

A year before the Games open, Greeks increasingly wonder 'what's in it for us?'

Aeolos, the Greek god of wind, is clearly not a sports fan. When international competitors tried to christen Athens' Olympic rowing lake last week, he sent ferocious August gusts, known here as meltemia, to blow them right out of the water.

As Denis Oswald, second in command at the International Olympic Committee (IOC), hunkered down in a tent to put an upbeat spin on this disastrous first test event for the 2004 Games, the winds roared so loudly that no one could hear him.

The $91 million rowing complex, built amid strong opposition in the ecologically fragile coastal area of Skinias, was the one place where Athens organizers needed everything to go right. But on this same beach where Persian King Darius's plans for conquering Athens went awry 2 1/2 millennia ago, the IOC fared little better.

With a year to go until the Olympic torch is lit, more and more Greeks are questioning whether they want to bring the Games back to the country where they were born. Soaring costs and broken promises have sent a wave of disillusionment through Greece that could dampen the Olympic spirit. The malaise is most apparent in the shortage of volunteers, whose assistance is crucial to the event's success, organizers say.

The Sydney 2000 Games raised the bar for host cities as IOC chiefs, commentators, and athletes saluted the volunteer corps there, dubbed "47,000 heroes" by the Australian press. Athens set its sights on creating a pool of 150,000 applicants to whittle down to 60,000 trustworthy helpers. But the eager deluge never arrived, and organizers have relied on nearly 30,000 applicants from abroad to boost the ranks.

Olga Kikou, manager of volunteers for the Athens Organizing Committee (ATHOC) remains confident, insisting that a total of 90,000 people have signed up.

"What they don't tell you is that more than half of these will drop out," says Roi Panagiotopoulou, an associate professor of media at Athens University. "The Olympics differ from other mega-events, as they are based on an ideal. They rely on these thousands of crazy people who rush to volunteer," she says. "But in Greece we have no tradition of volunteering."

Olympic planners had to start from scratch to persuade Greeks to give freely of their time, and it has proved a tough task.

"Greeks are smart, and if they felt there was something in it for them, they'd be quick to get involved," says Professor Panagiotopoulou, who has written a history of volunteerism in the Olympic movement. The overnight creation of a corporation like ATHOC, employing more than 2,000 on international-scale salaries, has stirred resentment in a low-wage economy. "No one wants to be the malakas, the sucker, working for free," says Panagiotopoulou.

The government and ATHOC have launched a barrage of advertising to change perceptions, with slogans such as: "The Olympic Works: They are for us! And they're staying with us!" But the early signs from seven August test events support the skeptics. According to Greek daily Elef-therotypia, a quarter of volunteers who had signed up either failed to show or went AWOL during the first events.

Tassos Telloglou, one of Greece's leading investigative reporters, believes the discontent being witnessed in the volunteer campaign can be traced back to the deal made between the IOC and the government when Athens won the Games in 1997.

Using its income from the commercial exploitation of the Games, the IOC paid close to $1 billion to set up and run ATHOC, which provides planning, expertise, and staff to prepare and stage the event. Greek taxpayers pick up the tab for everything else - from construction of sports arenas to transport infrastructure and security. Part of the winning Greek bid was the assertion that more than two-thirds of the venues were already in place. But inspections later revealed that many of these venues didn't meet the standards of the IOC, which retained most of decisionmaking authority. So now the part that is "staying with us" has more and more to do with handball venues and less to do with metro stations.

In the original bid, plans were laid out to build three much-needed bridges across the city's choked main artery. Only one of these projects made it off the drawing board. A suburban rail network has been been halved, extensions to the metro system have been shelved, and the thousands of trees promised to add greenery to Athens's concrete landscapes are nowhere to be seen.

In the meantime, security costs for the Games have exploded, due to global terrorism concerns after 9/11. Greek appeals to the IOC for help fell on deaf ears, and now the country's total security expenses will reach $600 million, more than double what Sydney spent three years ago.

For Thanos Veremis, director of the state-funded think tank ELIAMEP, the project all adds up to a costly white elephant. "At what price is all this done? he asks. "In a couple of years from now we will face a crisis when works have finished."

The government recently capped official spending for the Games at $5.1 billion. But a senior cabinet minister, speaking privately, said the real figure is closer to $12 billion, almost 15 percent of GDP.

"We were very naive at the beginning," says Telloglou. "A small country is not able to pay for an event of this kind."

Meanwhile, Nikos Haralambidis, director of Greenpeace Greece, says that earlier loud talk of "green Games" has hushed to a whisper. Environmental groups say they gave up trying to work with ATHOC after their input was ignored. "Sydney got six marks out of 10," says Haralambidis. "Athens will only get one."

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