Athens Stories: Olympiad's come home - we're off

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The Independent Online

Standing on a balcony high over the city as the obligatory fireworks lit the sky and signalled the arrival of 2004, I couldn't have been the only Athens resident to be struck by two things.

Standing on a balcony high over the city as the obligatory fireworks lit the sky and signalled the arrival of 2004, I couldn't have been the only Athens resident to be struck by two things.

First, that - like most cities that have trebled in size in less than two decades - the Greek capital looks a lot better by night. Second, that 2004, the year the Olympics return home, doesn't have the customary feeling of a new arrival.

The date has been omnipresent for years, blaring out from every radio, staring down from every billboard, spilling from the mouth of every public figure and lurking in the background of every conversation. The resulting '04 fatigue has found its best expression in the burgeoning (I-don't-want-to) volunteer movement.

Becoming a non-volunteer is the latest vogue: all you have to do is agree with basic principles such as, "I don't do unpaid work, and certainly not in August". Any Athenian who has wondered why it's necessary to spend four years' worth of the education budget on security for a fortnight's sport can sign up. The true passive resister must follow this final instruction, though: "The (I-don't-want- to) volunteer must already have his ticket for the Olympics. A one-way to the nearest island."

For those of us who are less than interested in seeing how high someone can jump or how fast they can run, the appeal of the homecoming Games was meant to be the accompanying cultural Olympiad. This winter's highlight was the opening of Outlook, the biggest modern art show the country has ever seen. The cultural cognoscenti can give their sporting counterparts a run for their money when it comes to delays and infighting, but here at last, it seemed, we had an unqualified success.

That hope disappeared as soon as George Karadzaferis, an extreme-right populist, took a look around. Confronted with Belgian artist Thierry de Cordier's Asperges Me (Dry Sin), which features an erect penis and a crucifix with what appears to be semen dripping from it, he demanded its removal.

The painting had hung for six weeks without causing comment, but suddenly it came under attack from both the Orthodox Church and the main opposition Conservative party, and within 24 hours it had been taken down for "insulting religious sentiment". The following day a 37-year-old woman slashed another canvas with a knife, claiming it, too, was obscene. With the Culture Minister responding by attacking "a climate of bigotry and obscurantism", normal service has been resumed.

Athens is experiencing not a second, but a third coming. This is nothing to do with religion, but with politics, though some of the rhetoric fails to make the distinction clear.

George Papandreou, whose late father Andreas and grandfather Giorgios were both prime ministers of Greece, has taken over as leader of the governing Socialists, just in time for the 7 March elections. Beleaguered supporters have greeted him as an earthly saviour, with slogans such as "Arise, Andreas, to see the child of change!"

The libidinous father, as famous for his female conquests as his hawkish eyebrows, has yet to return from the grave to witness the progress of his son. The mild-mannered George, born in the US, has the decency to look embarrassed at his new mantle as the "child of change". After all, he has been a cabinet minister for nearly a decade.

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