Olympian Hour

By Josie Appleton

The Olympic spirit is sorely missing from the debate about Greece’s preparations for the 2004 Olympic games, due to be held from August 13 to August 29.

The public aim of the games is to promote individual heroism and solidarity between countries, yet the world seems to be almost willing Athens 2004 to be a disaster. The Greeks are having to field predictions of doom, from fears about terrorist attacks to worries that the facilities won’t be ready on time. ‘An artificial climate of concern is being created,’ complained Greece’s culture minister, Evangelos Venizelos.

Concerns that the 2004 Olympics could be a terrorist target have been floated for a while. Greece has spent a record £430million on security, and more than 50,000 security personnel, including 16,000 soldiers, will guard both the country’s borders and Athens. Greek and American troops ran a three-week exercise, codenamed Shield of Hercules 2004, responding to ‘catastrophic scenarios’ such as dirty-bomb attacks and hijackings. According to one report, Piraeus, the port where visitors will be accommodated in cruise liners, will ‘resemble a fortress’—with gun-toting guard officers and barbed wire barriers. Athens will be a no-fly zone for the games, and US troops will be stationed offshore to respond to emergencies.

Yet the more Greece prepares, the more everybody else frets. Newspaper journalists probe the country, pointing out all its weak spots. One reporter said that she managed to walk into Athens’ building sites unobstructed, and noted security experts’ concerns that these sites could be ‘scouted by terrorists’ and ‘a device could be planted amid the chaos’. Others detailed all the weaknesses in Greece’s ‘porous borders’, which meet Macedonia and Albania in the north, and form a windy, island-strewn coastline in the south.

Athletes fear for their own safety, with US tennis star Serena Williams saying back in March that the threat of terrorism might keep her at home. ‘My security and my safety and my life are a little bit more important than tennis’, she said. The US government has warned its athletes not to wear their national colors outside the confines of the Olympic village, because this might make them targets. Meanwhile, UK counterterrorism officials are apparently so concerned about the standards of Greek security that they are considering dispatching their own marksmen to protect British athletes.

All this talk is not helping matters. Given that the aim of terrorism is to create panic, if terrorists know that the whole world will be watching and holding its breath there are more incentives to strike. And bands of international marksmen wandering around Athens with their guns cocked would be a recipe for disaster. ‘Any presence of foreign armed security guards for the athletes’ protection is strictly prohibited’, said a spokesman for the Greek Ministry of Public Order. ‘There are 202 countries participating in the Games, so you can imagine what would happen if we had armed security forces for every country.’

Another widespread concern is that the site won’t be ready in time. The Times (London) flew out a British structural engineer to examine the Greek’s preparations. ‘It is going to be tight’, Norman Train said gravely, ‘they should have done a third by this stage but less than a quarter is done…I can’t see how they will finish this on time’. There was a bit of tut-tutting at the Greeks’ lackadaisical attitude: ‘Despite the urgency of the situation, there was little building activity at any of the sites visited’, reported the article.

Competitors are concerned that inadequate facilities will affect their performance. Plans to build a roof over the swimming pool complex have been shelved for lack of time, so swimmers will have to cover themselves in sun cream. A spokesman for British Swimming said: ‘It is asking a lot of them to perform in these conditions—it could seriously upset their performance.’ The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is now attempting to get insurance to cover the possibility of cancellation, insisting not very convincingly that this didn’t indicate a lack of faith in Greece. Understandably, Greece is getting a little tired of all this worrying. A senior official at Athens 2004 said: ‘You can tell that we like to do things at the last moment, but we will make it. Foreign countries like England and America should give us a break. We knew from the beginning that we would have to use the whole time.’

The Olympics have traditionally been a focus for both cooperation and conflict. In ancient Greece, wars would be suspended for the Olympics—the different sides would put down their arms and compete on the field, challenging each other to contests of strength and skill. The modern Olympics, which began in 1896, involved an element of mutual cooperation and respect, but also often reflected the political rivalries and conflicts of the times—most notably, during the Cold War.

At today’s Olympics, we are seeing neither international cooperation nor staunch political rivalries. Instead, we are witnessing a mood that couldn’t be less ‘Olympian’—the small-minded, petty worries about safety, with each country demanding their own security guards, coaches moaning that their swimmers will be put off by the sunshine, and one of the top tennis players in the world pondering whether her safety is worth more than her sport. All this fretting threatens to turn the ‘greatest show on Earth’ into a logistical and public order problem. Instead of admiring the feats of the athletes, it seems we’ll just be hoping that the buildings are ready and everybody gets through the games alive. Merely surviving will be seen as a ‘success’.

Luckily, there are a few modern-day Olympians who are just getting on with things. UK marathon runner Paula Radcliffe went out early to inspect the course, which wasn’t finished. But Radcliffe was unfazed: ‘It would be nice to have the new course finished but there is a course there now. Right now, I am just focusing on training and being ready for whatever course I have to run on.’ If more people had her attitude, Athens 2004 would stand a far greater chance of success. n