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Letter from Athens: In Greece, It’s All the Rust We Cannot See that Worries

The opening ceremony of the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens – where they should always be held, but won’t because other host cities need corruption too – was the greatest in their history, largely because of its simplicity.

It was a dream, tying Ancient to Modern Greece, all eyes on the performers in sequences orchestrated by stage director Dimitris Papaioannou, drawing worldwide acclaim for depicting 3,000 years of Greek history.

Athens had to wait 108 years for this moment, the time between the first modern games in 1896 until they were stolen away by other cities and everyone was watching just the performers, not high above at the arched new roof.

That cost 265 million euros ($278.69 million) to bring some brilliance to the Olympic Stadium that opened in 1982 and, like a lot else in Greece, needed renovation to put on a good show for the world.

Designed by the renowned Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava – why not a Greek? – it, too, drew applause for putting a crowning touch on the facility and drawing attention to the old city and the games that Greece created.

The two giant arcs have a span of 304 meters (997 feet,) weighing 18,700 tons, covered by 5,000 polycarbonate panels, designed to withstand winds up to 75 miles per hour and an earthquake of 8 on the Richter scale.

It wasn’t designed to withstand the negligence of Greek governments.

The vaunted arches were left to rust, going unmaintained until so much rot was found in an inspection that the facility has been closed until further notice – but had been hosting sporting events and concerts under the risk of falling.

The facilities were shuttered after failing a safety inspection launched in April and overseen by a public asset agency. The nearby velodrome was evacuated while hosting a national bridge tournament, attended by several hundred people.

It was the latest headache for Greek authorities in managing costly Olympic venues around the capital, many remaining underused or mothballed after the Games cost the state some $11.6 billion to put on.

It wasn’t Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ fault they were rusting, but it is that it was known in 2020 they were in bad shape and events were still allowed to go on, his government one roof collapse from collapsing itself.

The New Democracy government under fire for not implementing railway safety measures ahead of a February train crash that killed 57, said maintaining the roof would have been too costly.

It included the Olympic complex renovation project under plans submitted to the European Union for funding assistance, defending its decision to try to overcome chronic maintenance delays.

“It is a known fact that the (Olympic Stadium) had not been maintained for two decades. Who does not feel disappointed when they see the pictures of such important facilities that have been left to their fate for so many years?” Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, first elected in 2019, wrote in an online post.

“That is what we are changing. That is why we are investing, that is why we have initiated this redevelopment, and that is why (safety) studies are being carried out,” not explaining why it wasn’t done earlier.

What? They couldn’t afford some paint? Sydney Harbor Bridge has a $20 million annual maintenance budget and is repainted every five years, because it too is an iconic symbol that must be taken care of.

But the Olympic Stadium roof – going back 19 years with all previous governments at fault – is now instead a new symbol representative of all that’s wrong and allowed to be that way. There’s no political points to be scored in maintenance, only in ribbon-cutting ceremonies.

The deadly train wreck happened because safety measures weren’t installed and showed the laissez-faire no maintenance mindset that prevails in the country, so someone please check Greek bridges before they fall down.

Stefanos Kasselakis, the newly-elected rookie Capitalist leading the once-Leftist SYRIZA, jumped on the issue like a politician on a free lunch and wrongly put the blame only at the feet of Mitsotakis, if you can find them with so many acolytes kissing them.

“The Calatrava roof: In 2004, it was a symbol of a country that was hosting the Olympic Games. In 2023, it is the symbol of a country that is falling apart at every level,” said Kasselakis, proving he’s not a hologram.

Among the many performances held at the stadium was that of the also iconic rock group Pink Floyd in 1989, a concert aptly named and a harbinger of what was to come, and what the mindset is here: ‘Momentary Lapse of Reason’.

The stadium roof isn’t alone in what’s left to deteriorate or not kept up. A single traffic accident on an Athens main road can create long backups of vehicles because signals and other equipment weren’t activated.

The closing of the stadium will cost more than it would have to maintain it, with a list of events canceled and the mega-concert of British rock band Coldplay scheduled for June, 2024 in doubt.

That would have brought in 40,000 tourists alone, who had already booked hotels in Athens, and would have dropped a lot of money in the city, all of that gone because no one was willing to authorize spending for some paint.

Tin roof, rusted.

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