Athens' legacy bigger than the £7 billion bill

It is exactly 10 months since the Olympic Games that some said would never happen opened marvellously if somewhat miraculously in Athens. In the lingering afterglow of those Greek salad days, the city remains on a high, though dispelling the doubters has left the country deep in debt, with concerns about how much use is now being made of the world-class facilities that cost so much and caused panic attacks among the International Olympic Committee as the delays mounted.

As we now know, Athens delivered, and delivered on time - just. But would London, should it get the 2012 Games? A telling phrase in the IOC's evaluation report on the bidding cities, which was released last Monday, is best read between the lines: "Given the magnitude of the project, careful planning would be required to ensure all facilities are delivered on time.'' In other words, we don't want a repeat of the Athens experience, thank you very much. So it is comforting for the London team to know that the Greeks have every faith in them - even if the IOC have yet to be convinced.

"London would be a different situation,'' says the Greek sports minister, George Orfanos, whose New Democracy party came to power just five months before a Games whose schedule had careered towards a crisis under the previous administration. "We had a lot of catching up to do but I am sure that those cities now bidding for 2012 will have learned from any mistakes we may have made. The most important thing is detail - get that right the day the Games are awarded and you will get a good result. Yes, we had many headaches, but those could have been avoided by more careful planning from the start. And that planning has to be not just for the Games - but what happens afterwards.''

Those headaches persist in Athens, but at this stage they are brought on by the frowning over the Games budget. Now the bill has been presented the cost of the Games stands at nearly £7bn, double the original estimate (Ken Livingstone please note). Public spending is having to be cut to control a budget deficit now in serious breach of European rules.

So was it worth it - and would it be for London? "Yes, of course,'' says the minister. "Athens is a different city now; not just the new roads, the airport and the metro but the way we are as people. We behave differently. We are more disciplined, more respectful, more confident in ourselves. We are proud of what we did. It began with winning the European Championship in football and then overcoming the doubts and the doubters with the Olympics. For us, this was the real miracle - now we know we can manage anything, any big event that comes our way.''

The morning after the surprise Euro football kings had suffered a 1-0 home defeat to Ukraine, leaving them requiring another Greek miracle to qualify for the 2006 World Cup, is perhaps not the most auspicious time to meet the minister. But he shrugs: "During our history we have become expert at creating miracles.'' Trained as a civil engineer, Orfanos epitomises what you hope a sports minister might be - athletically built, with the pugnaciously amiable features of a boxer or front-row rugby player. Plus with a passion for all sports. His brother Costas played for PAOK during the Seventies in their home town of Salonica and Orfanos, 52, himself once a top-class amateur, appears every Monday for a veterans team.

He admits that before the Games, "I too, had my doubts about whether it would all be worthwhile, but all the disadvantages are outweighed by the advantages. Not only did [the Games] create a good atmosphere for Greece but because of them our image abroad is much enhanced. We are taken more seriously as a nation, not only in sport but in politics and business. Other countries value our contribution.''

There is no doubt that those glory Games have transformed Greece into a mainstream European country. You hear few moans here about how much it has cost and Orfanos explains: "In the short term the economy may have suffered, but in the long term the income will show a profit - not just in monetary terms but in status and prestige. The human side of the Games is so important. It is not for me to give advice to London, but from my experience the Games are not just about constructions but a celebration for the competitors and spectators and a legacy for sport.''

However, it is those constructions, the 36 purpose-built or upgraded installations, which now concern Orfanos most. He must ensure they are not left to decay, to become more ancient ruins in a city that already has them in abundance.

This is why the Greeks are back in the bidding business, aiming to secure the European Football Championship in 2012 and the World Swimming Championships of 2009 as well as next year's athletics World Cup. They also want to attract conventions. Tourism has increased by 10 per cent and participation by youngsters in the 10,000 sports clubs is up by 15 per cent.

True, the traffic in the city is still gridlocked, but, as the sun dips behind the Acropolis, you sense a sprightly spring in the step of the Athenians that wasn't discernible before. The Games have been good for Athens. They will be good for London too, if only the IOC can be convinced it will be ready for them.

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