Letter from Athens

Article excerpt

The people of Greece shall host unique Games on a human scale, inspiring the world to celebrate Olympic values.--official website, Athens 2004

The Olympic Games are coming home to die.--anarchist graffito

The poster for The Day After Tomorrow on the main road north out of Athens (beefed up like a wrestler on steroids) shows a looming, wind-swept Parthenon menaced by ice and snow. It's an unlikely image, but it suits the moment well. While the world's media run endless will-they-won't-they stories doubting Athens's readiness for the Olympic Games, Greeks are beginning to worry about the storm that threatens when the party's over.

For Greece the Olympics are not just a giant sporting event, a deadline for overdue capital projects or even a blockbuster rebranding opportunity. They're also the crowning moment of fifty years of rapid modernization, chaotic and often painful--a passage from peasant farming supported by a large diaspora to a mixed economy wooing foreign investors, from the periphery of the developed world to the middle echelons of the European Union. Archeologists have rushed to salvage evidence of ancient Athens from the orgy of pre-Olympic construction, but Greece's recent history is written on the city's face, in the glass air-conditioned towers that line the new main roads, the organic cafes and ethnic eateries tucked into the center, the shantytowns beyond the western hills. The big dig that has swathed the streets in miles of orange netting is just the warp-speed version of a familiar process, and how Greeks feel about the Games partly depends on where they think the ride is taking them. My more prosperous or optimistic friends have tickets to the show. The rest plan to flee the city, whose "Olympic zones" will also be cleared of stray dogs, beggars and the Athenians' omnipresent fuming, honking cars.

Even their skepticism, though, is complicated by a touchy national pride. Greece is the smallest country to host the summer Games since the Helsinki Games of 1952, and the first since September 11. It began to prepare for the Games during the huge economic push that brought it into the Eurozone in 2001, with its attendant price rises and austerity measures. (Before this year's EU expansion, Greek workers earned the second-lowest wages in the Union.) Laughing at Greek incompetence has become a favorite sport in the international media. As a result, Athens is in the grip of an anxious bravado, as if you'd invited your boss to dinner and decided at 5 o'clock that you had to replaster the dining room. Politics, like the roof of the Olympic stadium, is partially suspended.

A year ago the city buzzed with tension and possibility. The modernizing socialist government of Costas Simitis had revolutionized Greek foreign policy but was already fatally undermined by its old guard's corruption--a gargantuan subterranean fungus known as ta diaplekoumena, or "the entanglements." A solution to the de facto partition of Cyprus was still in reach under Kofi Annan's plan for federation, carefully nurtured by Simitis and his foreign minister, George Papandreou, despite the Greek and Turkish Cypriot governments' cold feet. The members of the terrorist groupuscule November 17 had finally been arrested, but Greece's sleazy private TV channels were using the soap opera of the trial to write off the whole history of the left. And the Olympics--well, the Olympics were a year off, an opportunity for idealism and new development or an excuse for contractors and politicians to line their pockets, depending on whom you asked.

This March the PaSok government fell in a landslide to the conservative New Democracy, led by Constantine Caramanlis. In April the Greek Cypriots voted against the Annan plan, closing the door on an unrepeatable opportunity and isolating themselves at the moment of their accession to the European Union. The change of government has brought a kind of relief; even PaSok stalwarts agree that a major cleanup is in order, and Papandreou, as new party leader, has embarked on it with a vengeance. …