After seven years of political bickering, missed deadlines, negative international media coverage, constant clouds of construction dust and a colossal final bill, the curtain for the Athens Olympiad is about to go up. But the question many Athenians are already asking themselves is: was it worth it? The straight answer is "No".
Hosting an Olympic Games is a colossal task for any nation. The sheer size of the Games, especially with the additional demands of security, means that only a handful of very large nations can manage to handle the event. Staging the Olympics in a country of just over 10 million people, overloaded with problems, was always going to be huge gamble, for the International Olympic Committee and the nation.
Athens was selected for the 2004 Games in part out of guilt that it had been rejected in favour of Atlanta for the centenary Olympiad, back in 1996, and also because the IOC agreed that after the raw commercialism of the Atlanta Olympics, Greece was best placed to inject the event with renewed romanticism. The Athens Games were meant to be a historic homecoming to the country that invented them, in 776BC, and revived the first modern Games back in 1896.
In principle, returning the Olympics to its birthplace was a sound idea. To run the marathon over the very route that Pheidippides took in 490BC to bring the Athenians news of victory over the Persians, to have athletes throwing the discus and javelin in the shadow of the Acropolis, to have men and women from all over the world competing where democracy was born would surely provide many unforgettable Olympic moments.
For the Greeks, winning the bid was a boost for morale, fulfilling their psychological need for international recognition. More crucially, it was going to be a major test of the country's ability to organise a major international event without turning the whole thing into an orgy of chaos, waste, inefficiency and corruption. Which is exactly what has happened. Granted the Games in 1997, organisers did not begin to design facility improvements until 2000. And then came 11 September 2001.
Greece, already running seriously behind schedule in building the necessary sports and transport infrastructure, suddenly found itself hosting the most symbolically significant global event to follow the terrorist attacks. Under pressure from its Western allies, the country was forced to spend record amounts on security, far more than any other host country before, setting up a draconian security network.
And yet, despite the fact that organisers and security planners have left nothing to chance, working with several nations and Nato, and sparing no cost in their efforts to cover every angle possible, Greece has failed to convince people that visiting the Athens Games will be safe. Ticket sales have been disappointingly slow, although prices are lower than Sydney.
The body bags outside Madrid's Atocha train station earlier this year provided a graphic reminder that terrorism with the aim of high casualties is a threat everywhere. Greece's poor record in dealing with terrorism has not helped. Its lamentable record against the domestic 17 November terrorist group (it took an astonishing 27 years to catch the members), together with its extensive coastline, porous borders and proximity to the Middle East, have prompted security experts and the international media to openly question Greece's resolve to provide ample safety and security for the Games.
The Olympics were meant to reverse negative stereotypes that have followed Greece for decades. But it has been, instead, a public relations disaster. When was the last time there was a positive headline about the Athens Games? From day one, the story has been about delays, missing roofs, power outrages, over-runs, political clashes, corruption.
Soon after the 11 September attacks, Greece's political elites should have gone to the IOC and said: "Listen, guys, things have dramatically changed since we won the bid in 1997 and in this new security environment we, a small country with limited resources and infrastructure, don't think we can protect the Olympics without wrecking our already problematic economy in the process. Sorry, but we have to pull out." September 11 was Greece's last chance of making a dignified and face-saving exit.
A country, like a person, can spend years refusing to face up to the obvious. This Olympic nightmare, apart from showing the world our chaotic Balkan side, has supplied final proof of our megalomania. Greece, sooner rather than later, must come to terms with being Greece: a small, if historically significant, European country of peripheral status and limited abilities, and learn to cut its cloth accordingly.
The €7bn (£4.6bn) Greece is spending for two weeks of Olympic pride could be going towards improving the country's low public health provisions, education, social welfare and other things that Athenians consider of higher priority than staging a big athletics show. We should never have taken on these Olympics.
The writer is the author of Europe's Last Red Terrorists: The Revolutionary Organization 17 November
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