Greek women lead Olympics to success

While ancient history was the buzzword of the Olympic Games' return to their birthplace, history was also made in a very modern way: these were the first Olympics with women in the key leadership roles, including the first-ever woman head of a national Olympic organizing committee and the first woman mayor of an Olympic city.

Having women fill these roles is remarkable in itself, say Greeks, but even more so given that this is a European nation without a strong tradition of feminism or gender equity. Though Greece was the birthplace of democracy, Greek women weren't able to vote until 1952. The practice of obligatory dowries wasn't outlawed until 1983. Today, there are only 39 women in Greece's 300-member Parliament, and Greece routinely ranks at the bottom of female representation in government, trade unions, and political parties among the 25 nations of the European Union.

But the success of the Games could be a catalyst for change here.

"Greek society is still very patriarchal and unequal. I think the image of seeing these women in power, the symbol, will be a very important thing for Greeks. This is an indication that we'll see more women in public office. It will get a younger generation used to the idea of women in powerful posts," says Maria Stratigaki, a sociologist at Athens' Panteion University.

Analysts say it's hard to overestimate the political and psychological effect of the successful Olympics to the Greeks, especially after Athens' much maligned preparations. The successful completion of the most high-profile and expensive endeavor in the country's recent history has given Greece a desperately needed surge of confidence, a moment on the world stage that showed the transformation of a poor developing country into a competent modern European state. Experts say that any public figure associated with these Games would be lionized; that they were women in a male-dominated culture may well go far towards changing attitudes here.

Of the women leaders, the most prominent is Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, who headed the Athens Olympic Committee. Known simply as "Gianna" to most Greeks, she cuts a colorful and imposing figure - at once revered, hated, admired, and satirized. She is credited with getting the mired Olympic Games off the ground, but also with using a ruthless approach to do so, which earned her the sobriquet "Iron Lady." But she injected more glamour into the role than the original Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher. Ms. Angelopoulos-Daskalaki seldom appeared without flashy, form-fitting designer suits, diamonds, spike heels, and Cuban cigars.

Her Olympic legacy began in 1997, when the former lawyer and member of Parliament headed Athens' successful Olympic bid, redeeming Greece from its humiliating failure to get the centennial 1996 Games. Shortly afterward, however, the conservative party member was shunted aside by Greece's ruling Socialist government, and she left the country. But by 2000, preparations were so far behind schedule, Greece was faced with with losing the Olympics. The government begged Angelopoulos-Daskalaki to return. Today, she's given full credit for salvaging the train wreck, and producing an acclaimed Olympic Games.

Now it's widely speculated that she'll run for president. Greeks say that while she's tough to love as a politician, no one can deny her effectiveness. "Gianna is perceived as an 'iron lady' - but she is also perceived as very effective at her job. We've never had a female leader like her so far, but she could change that," says Myrto Boutsi, a journalist at the Greek daily Eleftheros Typos.

Civil engineer Constantine Papaconstantinou admits that a leader like Angelopoulos-Daskalaki might be tough for him to take. "In Greece we've never before had women in significant roles," he says. "Someone like Gianna - well, I don't like people who will do anything to succeed, to get ahead. But in this case, it was advantageous for Greece."

Athens' mayor, Dora Bakoyianni, who worked closely with Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, says the fact that she was elected to office in 2003 shows that Greek attitudes are already starting to shake up.

"Greeks have gone through an evolution in society the last years," she says. "They said that in Athens, a woman could never be elected - it was proven wrong." Indeed, since she took office, opinion polls have frequently named Ms. Bakoyianni as the most popular politician in the country.

Bakoyianni has been credited with doing much to clean up Athens, promoting pedestrian parks, tree-planting, improving handicapped access and hiring a municipal force to crack down on littering and illegal peddlers - mostly aesthetic projects that polished Athens' image for the millions of Olympic visitors and billions of Olympic television viewers, not to mention the quality of life of Athenians themselves.

The third prominent woman of the Greek Games, deputy culture minister Fanni Palli-Petrallia, only came on board in March of this year, after national elections brought her conservative New Democracy party into power. She is credited with overseeing the successful completion of the major Olympic works, as the country desperately dashed towards the finish line.

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