Athens 2004: The Olympic Spirit Brings Winds of Change a Year Before the Opening of the Games

The Olympic Games, the most important sporting event in the world, come home to Greece next year highlighting their ancient roots and the human dimension.

Expectations of the 2004 Olympics are enormous both inside and outside the country and have turned the event into something halfway between the search for the pure Olympic spirit and the quest for historical indelibility.

This is the setting that has prompted all Greek public and private institutions to work with great intensity. The Olympic Games have brought with them winds of change. On the outside, the new infrastructure has changed the face of the country; on the inside, a change of attitude can be seen at every level.

To be sure, the celebration of the Olympic Games has turned the country into a maelstrom of activity, at the center of which we find the Ministry of Culture and its General Secretary for the Olympic Games, Professor Constantinos Cartalis.

The Secretary points out that coordination is the most difficult part. “Five of the sporting venues are being built by the Ministry of Public Works. The Ministry of Labour is building the Olympic Village, the Ministry of Public Order is building the Media Village and the Ministry of Education is building two Media Villages that will later become student campuses”, he explains.

Prof. Constantinos Cartalis
Infrastructure construction of a total of 25 venues is 90% complete. Only four sites are less than 50% built – as of May 2003 – due mainly to appeals to the Council of State by contractors who were not selected, or the uncovering of archaeological ruins during excavations.

The rest have moved along quickly, accompanied by an aesthetic change of the Olympic capital. “As compared to Sydney and in particular Atlanta, we have decided not to construct temporary facilities because we see this is a great opportunity for Athens to obtain long-term assets”, explains the General Secretary for the Olympic Games.

A model to follow

Greeks have learned from Barcelona, where Olympic organizers built a central boulevard to the sea, re-establishing the city’s forgotten relationship with the marine element. Athens already has such a boulevard, Syngrou Avenue, leading to a particularly unsavoury piece of coastline, the Phaleron Delta. Athens organizers are completely overhauling the Delta into an area with sport facilities, shops and walkways, and improving pedestrian access and public transport to it. The capital has also been improved with the construction of 90 km of new motorway around the city, the improvement of approximately 120 km of existing roadway and the construction of public transport such as a Tram-line and the metro.

Among those who are organizing the Games, this new direction is the best example of a country with a will to change. “We are a country with the opportunity to demonstrate abroad that we are capable of hosting important events not just from an organizational standpoint, but also to foster collaboration between the public and private sectors, and preserve our cultural heritage”, states Mr. Cartalis.

The Minister of Culture, Evangelos Venizelos, puts it in similar terms. He speaks of opportunity, a thematic notion associated with the celebration of the games, in his case economic opportunity.

“Taking on the task of organizing the Olympic Games, including the Cultural Olympiad, is a unique opportunity for the reorientation of our tourism industry”, assures Mr. Venizelos. “Until now Greece has followed a tourism model very similar to Spain’s. Our goal is to bring our model closer to the Italian one: not only a resort-based summer holiday tourism but also urban tourism with an important cultural impact”.

A good part of this new business model is being applied to Iraklion, the capital of the island of Crete. The city has 120,000 inhabitants and is endowed with all the necessary transportation infrastructures. Its airport receives approximately 15% of all domestic flights in Greece.

The Ministry of Culture of the Hellenic Republic thinks that the options for his country go much beyond the mere recognition of its organizational capacity. “It is a unique opportunity to promote real modernization, not only through general or cultural infrastructures, but by cultivating and achieving a new work mentality”, he indicates.

Venizelos sums up all of the above in the possibility of creating a new brand name for Greece, with the challenge of “bringing to the people of the world a viable combination of the authenticity of the Athens Olympic Games and the Olympic Ideal. This is important not only for the athletic movement, but also for the international political position of Greece”.

An opportunity for peace

The Olympic Truce will give a special social and political significance to this sporting event. Starvos Lambrinidis, the Director of the Olympic Truce, points out that the centre’s goal is to get back to the roots of the Olympic Games, that is to say, stop all conflicts during the celebration of the games. “You did not have professional athletes in ancient Greece, your best athletes tended to be your best soldiers. So, in order to host games of that caliber you had to stop the war to get your best athletes to the stadium”, explains Lambrinidis.

He is also of the opinion that the most important project Greece is working on is its image for the next ten years. The cessation of hostilities is considered more important than any military logic. “The Olympic Truce Movement is requesting that during the 16 days of the Olympic Games peace be given a chance”.

The Olympic Truce will give a special social and political significance to this sporting event.

On behalf of the Paralympic Games, Anastasia Goufa, consultant at the Greek Ministry of Culture for this event, highlights the profound changes made in Greek cities to accommodate this kind of celebration. The new mass transport systems – metro, tramcar, suburban railway, etc. – are in line with the special requirements needed to provide easy access for the disabled. Furthermore, a number of important archaeological and cultural sites, including the Acropolis, have been adapted for the disabled. “We want the Games to leave behind a legacy, which means that our progress will be slow but sure”, she affirms.