As Olympic glow fades, Athens questions $15 billion cost

Many venues stand empty four years after Greece hosted the summer Games.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Faliro Olympic Complex: Designed to be a revitalizing influence, its two main stadiums stand shuttered today.
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Sprinklers still keep the grass at Greece's Olympic softball stadium green. But four years after the 2004 Games, it sits unused in the middle of a vast, empty parking lot, patrolled by police vehicles.

As Beijing gears up for the most expensive Olympics in history – in the neighborhood of $40 billion – Athens is looking back at the legacy of its Games. The smallest country ever to host the modern event, Greece was proud to have pulled it off despite widespread skepticism. But while the event gave a morale boost to the Olympics' birthplace, many say Athens has failed to translate that into lasting momentum for modernization.

"I think that during the Olympics there was a good feeling," says Andreas Efthimiou, the deputy mayor of the Athens suburb where the Faliro Bay Olympic Complex is located. "But after the Olympics, I see that nothing has been done, we have lost the chance to change the face of the city."

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Many of the venues are still vacant four years later, promised parks never materialized, and new transportation infrastructure has caused problems like flooding and increased traffic, says Mr. Efthimiou. Citizens question the event's $15 billion price tag – most of it paid for by the state.

"They've abandoned the development," says a dismayed Stelious Thanelas, a pensioner who lives near the Faliro facility. "I used to think [the Olympics] were worth it. Now I don't. The venues aren't being used and nothing has been done."

Such sentiments also resonate in Tokyo, the potential 2016 Olympic host Tokyo. Its staging of the 1964 Games was widely seen as a testament to the nation's post-World War II recovery, but now only 59 percent of Tokyo residents support the bid to bring them back.

"The Games cost too much money, and they destroy the environment," Assemblywoman Yoshiko Fukushi told The Associated Press. "Maybe there was meaning back in 1964, when the economic effects were positive."

Graffiti, weeds, and vacant lots

That's what Athens was hoping the Faliro complex would be – a revitalizing influence. But the two main stadiums are shuttered, the public spaces around them deserted and covered in graffiti. A nearby vast field that was supposed to be an ecological park is strewn with old furniture and weeds. Trees planted before the Olympics have since died and the watering system dug up by Roma, who use the area as a camp.

A few of the properties are still being used by local sporting organizations, although the building maintenance is heavily subsidized by the state. The former badminton stadium, which was built as a temporary facility, has been converted into a popular theater. Another facility is being transformed into a mall. A ministry has moved into the former media center.

The state-run company responsible for the venues, Hellenic Olympic Properties, says many of the properties have now been leased. But a number of those projects are stalled by legal and licensing delays. Critics also question why so little progress has been made after four years.

Kostas Kartalis, former head of Hellenic Olympic Properties and now a member of parliament for the opposition socialist party PASOK, blames the new center-right government for the delay.

He says they redrew plans for the venues' post-Olympic use to emphasize private development rather than the public good. Others say that in the scramble to host the Olympics, the PASOK government neglected to think about what to do with the facilities afterward.

Mr. Kartalis thinks Beijing and London, which will host the 2012 summer Olympics, will have an easier time putting their facilities to good use. Athens is home to just 4 million people, compared with Beijing's 17 million and London's 12 million.

But he has some advice for Greece's successors. "After the Games, there's a tendency for the enthusiasm to go down, for people to get more relaxed," he says. "But I think after the games you have six or eight months, very critical, to take with you the thrust of the games and to develop new solutions for the city."

Upshot: new airport, metro system

Aside from the venues, though, the Olympics did leave a positive legacy for Athens, especially in the city's center.

Once notorious for its traffic and chaos, the historic heart of the city near the Acropolis was cleaned up with the creation of pedestrian walkways that link many of the city's ancient sites. The walkways had been planned for more than 150 years, but it took the Olympics to make it reality.

Athens also got a new airport and a new metro, finished on the eve of the Olympics, which now carries more than 600,000 passengers a day.

"I believe that the overall legacy for the city of Athens because of the Games of 2004 is positive," says Kartalis. "The tourist industry has been enjoying an increase year. The infrastructure is much better. I would have said that the exception would be some of the sporting venues."

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