Twenty-five years have passed from September 5, 1997, when Juan Samaranch, the Catalan head of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), announced which city had been awarded the 2004 Olympic Games. He was speaking from the podium of a convention center in the heart of Lausanne, Switzerland, the IOC headquarters.
Samaranch’s exact words on that day were “the city who (sic) will have the honor and responsibility to organize the Olympic Games in 2004 is Athens.”
Celebrations marked by elation as well as relief broke out throughout Greece. Athens had been considered the favorite of all cities bidding for the 2004 Games, but nothing was sure because Athens had been considered a shoo-in to be named the host of the centenary Olympics of 1996, but those Games were awarded to Atlanta. That loss was a stinging blow to Greek pride and elicited actress and minister of Culture Melina Mercouri’s memorable quote “Coca Cola has defeated the Parthenon.”
When tempers cooled in the Greek capital it was widely acknowledged Athens’ bid was doomed due to the city’s smog, traffic problems, poor sports and transport infrastructure and a complacency about being entitled to hold the centenary Games because it had organized the first modern Olympics back in 1896.
What followed was a series of events that fell into a pattern of Greek public life which political scientist Stathis Kalyvas has named “disasters and triumphs” in a book published in 2015. Greece responded to the humiliation of not being awarded the 1996 Olympics by getting serious about its bid for the 2004 Games. Aside from addressing the issues that had undermined its credibility as a possible organizer of the 1996 Games, the new prime minister Costas Simitis made a bold move and appointed someone who was not a career politician and was a woman, Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, as the head of the committee responsible for presenting Athens’ candidacy. Gianna, as she is frequently referred to in Greece, is best remembered as the successful head of a different committee that organized the 2004 Games so successfully after they were awarded to Athens. But both Simitis, who innovated by not choosing a career politician or a man for the job, and Gianna, who crafted an extremely persuasive bid, deserve praise for getting the 2004 Games to Athens in the first place.
The triumph in Lausanne was followed by a near disaster because Greece’s snail pace preparations, mostly due to the country’s legendary red tape and turf wars among government agencies eager to dispense political favors, elicited a worried warning from Samaranch that the IOC might seek an alternative venue. That was when Gianna was brought in again and forcefully took charge.
Thankfully, albeit with the paint still drying in some sports facilities, the 2004 Athens Olympics began on August 13th with a spectacular opening ceremony. In the following days the Greeks surprised themselves with the efficiency with which the sports events were run, the discipline and enthusiasm of the spectators, and most remarkably, the cheerful work of hundreds of volunteers, a novelty for a society that expects everything to be done by the government. Two weeks later the world’s media was praising Athens and apologizing for doubting it could organize the 2004 Olympics, let alone run them so smoothly.
On cue, however, disaster showed up soon after because the newly elected government abandoned most of the expensively-built Olympic venues which could have easily been deployed for public use or sold off to private investors. It was a sure sign that the politicians were back in charge. There was not a quick turnover and triumphant resolution, and foreign reporters and photographers had a field day ten years later, in 2014, highlighting the ruinous state of many of those still-abandoned facilities. Ominously, there was an even greater disaster at hand, the near decade-long sovereign debt crisis that brought record levels of unemployment, homelessness, and poverty.
The exorbitant cost of the Olympics, experts tell us, was by no means the main cause, but it contributed to the country’s financial woes that began in late 2009.
Triumph eventually came when the country emerged from the crisis and moved forward with less dependence of on the state sector and more business-friendly policies.
Sadly, thousands of Greeks had suffered irreparably and more thousands, mostly skilled young persons had emigrated abroad.
I am not sure that a cycle of disasters and triumphs is a good enough way to interpret Greek society’s trajectory over the past few decades. Yet it surely is a useful label, given the roller coaster ride Greece has been on from the day Samaranch stood at the podium in Lausanne twenty-five years ago. Let’s hope that if Greece is still in that cycle of lows and highs, those triumphs always reappear in the way they did so convincingly the summer of 2004.