A post-Olympic hurdle for Greece: the whopping bill

Greeks hope increased tourism will help them pay the $9 to $12 billion pricetag for bringing the Olympics to Athens.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Greece defied skeptics to deliver a vibrant Olympics that may be remembered as one of the best. But in Athens, a steeper obstacle remains before the Games can be deemed a success: the staggering bill.

The Greek government has yet to give an exact figure on the cost, but with estimates at $9 to $12 billion, there's no question that these were the most expensive Games ever, an overwhelming economic burden on the smallest country to host them since 1952.

Greeks are hoping for the "Barcelona effect" - a surge in tourism similar to the one that followed the 1992 Barcelona Games - to help defray the massive debt. But many economists warn that Athens may end up experiencing something closer to the "Montreal effect." That city was plunged into such a financial slump after the 1976 Games that it won't finish paying off its Olympic debt until 2006.

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"It's hard to say which will happen, between these two views," says Thanos Veremis, an analyst at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy. "With the high debt, and the slowdown in development, there could be a serious recession. But the Olympics also spurred Greece to improve infrastructure ... If the cost is forbidding, we will have to declare that the Olympics were a failure."

Estimates for financing the entire Games were around $1 billion, but due to the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the cost of Olympic security alone rocketed to an estimated $1.5 billion. And after the Greeks became bogged down in delays, they were forced to spend billions more over the three years before the Games, to do, as organizers have said, "seven years' work in three years' time."

Athens was saddled with massive preparations for its Olympic city. Known for its bad roads, airport, and mass transit systems, Greece built highways, a new airport, and a suburban rail system. Many point to this as the biggest benefit of the Games, noting that most of these projects would never have been started, let alone completed, without the Olympic deadline.

During the lead-up to the Games, development contributed to a booming economy. The country's average economic growth rate of more than 4 percent a year was well over the European Union average. As one of the poorest EU countries at the time, Greece was receiving hefty EU subsidies for development. But with 10 more nations now in the EU, those subsidies will be funneled to poorer countries.

With the end of major development comes the beginning of payback. Greece's public debt is close to 100 percent of its GDP and its budget deficit is now 3.2 percent, which breaches the 3 percent limit set by the European Commission. The EC has demanded Greece devise a plan in three months to reduce the debts.

Experts say that Greece is hardly unusual in having a post-Olympic hole in its pocket. "With the exception of Los Angeles, [in 1984], I can't think of any Olympics that were really a financial success," says Evan Osborne, a sports economist at Ohio's Wright State University.

Australian taxpayers are still paying off an Olympic debt from the 2004 Sydney Games that could cost them $32 million a year for a decade. Barcelona is still paying back a $1.4 billion Olympic deficit. And even the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002 left Utah with a $155 million deficit.

The burden could be even harder for Greece, says Osborne. He and other experts say it may be unrealistic to expect a Barcelona-like tourism boom to pay it off. "Barcelona was part of an overall boom in tourism to Spain. But since then, so much has changed in terms of international travel and security," says Helen Lenskyj, a sociologist at the University of Toronto who specializes in the Olympics.

In an acknowledgment of Greece's struggle to pay for the Olympics, the International Olympic Committee announced plans to cut the scale of the Olympics in the future. It proposed more than 100 recommendations to combat what it called the "gigantism" of the event, including cutbacks in venues and credentials, and said some of the measures will be implemented by the 2006 Winter Games in Turin.

Meanwhile, Athenians are preparing to tighten their belts for at least the next decade. City of Athens spokesman Dimi-tris Katsoudas is optimistic about the investment to his city, but echoes Greek officials throughout the government: "This was a gamble. For the final answer, you'll have to ask again in 10 years."

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