A 'new Greece' beams after success of Games

As Greeks get a boost, it remains unclear if success will mean higher stature in Europe.

As the Olympic Games closed Sunday and foreign visitors streamed home, Greeks were savoring the success of the event so many had said they could not manage, and measuring themselves against new standards.

After suffering nearly a century of self-doubt, uncertainty about its place in the world, and a stunted economy, Greece has set an Olympic seal on its transformation over the past two weeks, say many analysts here.

"A new Greece is emerging," exults Theodore Couloumbis, a prominent political commentator. "Out of the cocoon, a worm is turning into a butterfly."

"We delivered," adds Athens Mayor Dora Bakoyianni proudly. "We surprised everyone by delivering, and we feel very good about ourselves doing so. It is very important for the self-esteem Greeks have felt."

Some wonder how long the signs of the "new Greece" will remain visible now that the Games are over and the world's eyes turn elsewhere. Drivers will go back to their old bad habits once there are fewer policemen to enforce the law, they predict, and a traditionally lackadaisical work ethic will creep back now that there are no urgent deadlines.

Even the government spokesman, Theodoros Roussopoulos, admits that he "cannot say if the changes will last, but we want to try." But the government "wants to force things to go faster and simpler, and the Olympics will help" he predicts.

Preparing and running the Games "was a lesson in organizing and rationalizing, and I hope some of this organization and rationalization will permeate our life," says Nikos Dimou, an author and commentator. "The fact that we suddenly had to conform to a different code of behavior - I hope it will last, but I doubt whether you can change things in three or four weeks."

A more tangible legacy of the summer Games that will certainly last is the impressive range of infrastructure projects that have changed the face of Athens and other parts of the country in recent months, as workers raced on triple shifts against the clock to finish them on time.

They range from the dramatic Harilaos Trikoupi bridge linking the western Greek mainland to the Peloponnese - the longest cable-suspended bridge in the world - to new sports facilities, a new metro line, and a new airport outside Athens.

Intriguingly, all these massive projects were partly the fruit of foreign input: the dramatically swooping roof over the main athletics stadium was designed by a Spanish architect, Santiago Calatrava; a French company designed and built the new bridge; a German firm built and manages the airport; and the metro was largely financed by the European Union.

At the same time, a German coached the national soccer squad which unexpectedly won the Euro Cup in Portugal earlier this summer, igniting the flame of national pride.

In a country long suspicious of foreigners, accustomed to thinking of itself as "a brotherless nation" in the words of the last president, Christos Sartjetakis, this is new, points out Wayne Merry, an expert on Greece at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington.

"Twenty years ago Greeks would have been very uncomfort- able with that level of foreign involvement" in matters of national import, says Mr. Merry. The wide acceptance of outside assistance "reflects the way young Greeks consider themselves European," he adds. "They accept a role as a small country in a larger entity. Greece has matured as a modern European country."

That maturity has enjoyed a confirming boost from the success of the Olympics, some suggest. "This summer may have an effect on the way we see ourselves, and make Greeks more secure and sure of themselves," says Mr. Dimou. "Psychologically speaking, there are positive effects."

Almost since they won their independence from the Turkish Ottoman empire in 1832, Greeks have been unsure of themselves, divided to the point of civil war over whether they belong to the East or the West.

Although the Greek Orthodox church remains a powerful anti-Western force in society, the two major political parties and the vast majority of Greeks now agree on the country's European orientation, leaving only members of Europe's last hard-line Communist party to oppose European Union membership.

The physical changes Athens has undergone for the Olympics symbolize this: A decade ago the city looked like a Balkan capital, chaotic and run down; today, it is clearly a European capital.

"We have abandoned the mentality of being a peripheral dependent country for the mentality of being in the center and being interdependent," explains Professor Couloumbis.

That, says Merry, marks "a coming of age" for Greece.

"Well," ripostes Mayor Bakoyianni, "we are 3,000 years old."

Coral Davenport contributed to this report.

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