The tarnished legacy that will haunt the Athens Olympics

Agora Contributor: Nick Malkoutzis

The Olympic Games only come around every four years but for enthusiasts there is at least an annual pastime to keep them busy: Each summer, like clockwork, photographs of disused Athens 2004 venues are published and articles assess those Olympics’ failing legacy.

Those pictures of weeds growing at the beach volley venue, dusty seats at the baseball ground and general decay at the hockey stadium have become tedious. A decade on from that transcendent opening ceremony at the Olympic Stadium in Maroussi, it is abundantly clear that Greece did not make the most of hosting the Games. Revisiting this particular issue each year is not going to change that.

Understanding the failings of Athens 2004 would be more productive. Firstly, it is clear that the planning for the Games was not what it should have been. While the actual event was crowned with success, thereby proving many critics wrong, insufficient thought went into what would happen once the Olympics were over. Permanent stadiums for beach volleyball, baseball and hockey – sports hardly played in Greece – what were they thinking? It is no surprise that in London two years ago these venues were collapsible.

The most serious fault of the Games does not lie here, though. After all, key venues are in use. Also, one could point to the fact that the Olympics were the driving force for the creation of new infrastructure – metro, roads and airport – that Athens desperately needed. This is a legacy that the Greek capital still benefits from today. In the first quarter of this year almost 420,000 passengers arrived at Athens International Airport, up 23.8 percent on the previous year. Trying to manage this kind of traffic at the old airport in Hellenikon does not even bear thinking about.

No, the main weakness of the Athens Games was that they fitted into a broader pattern of the time, when the magnificence of the “grand projets” of the period obscured the finer, but crucial, detail. In a sense the Olympics mirrored Greece’s euro membership: A progressive vision that was undone by a lack of foresight and poor, bordering on criminal, management. Just as Greece’s decision makers had not properly thought through the implications of joining the single currency, so its Olympic planners placed all the emphasis on getting the show on the road in August 2004 and little on what kind of audience it would play to after that.

The real shame lies in the nonchalance with which public money was handled. Greece hosted the Olympic Games it (and others) dreamed of, not the ones it could afford. The principles of proper management were launched javelin-like into the air, never to return. The security budget ballooned, public contracts were showered on construction companies and overtime pay was forked out to make up for the lack of progress during the early years of the Athens bid. The Games cost, according to an official estimate, around 8.5 billion euros (double the original budget and not including what was spent on infrastructure such as the airport and metro). This made them the most expensive Olympics at the time organised by one of the smallest ever countries to host them. It was an equation doomed to fail.

The Athens Olympics arrived after euro entry, when austerity was set aside and purse strings were loosened, backed by cheaper but unsustainable borrowing. Within days of the Olympics ending, the government warned the euro area that its public debt and deficit figures would be worse than expected. The deficit for 2004 came in at 6.1 percent, more than double the eurozone limit, while Greece’s debt reached 110.6 percent of GDP, the highest in the European Union. Subsequently, Greece became the first EU country to be placed under fiscal monitoring by the European Commission.

However, with public debt totalling 168 billion euros in 2004, it’s clear that the Olympics alone did not bring about an economic collapse. They blew a hole in the government’s finances but, more importantly, the Athens Games epitomised the structural problems - such as poor political management, lack of transparency, inadequate planning and fiscal irresponsibility - that bedevilled the country for many years before it finally buckled in 2009. The Olympics should have been the launch pad to send the country soaring into the 21st Century; instead it was the trap door through which Greece fell into uncertainty.

The annual tradition of photographing tumbleweed being blown across an empty stadium does little to answer the questions that still haven’t been answered a decade on. Who was responsible for losing control of public finances? Who profited from the money that was spent? Were crimes committed? Should someone have been held accountable? Greek taxpayers, who were largely the victims rather than perpetrators, are the ones footing the bill 10 years later. Nobody else has accepted any responsibility for what went wrong. For Greek taxpayers there are no gold medals, juicy public contracts, fat salaries or fame. As a result of others’ failings, they cannot even see a finishing line in sight. This more than anything else tarnishes the legacy of the Athens Games.

1 Comment(s)

  • Posted by: H.Trickler

    >"The real shame lies in the nonchalance with which public money was handled."

    Well, "nonchalance" is a very vague and in my ears too polite word for what the responsible political class had done.

    In my view it was irresponsible, if not criminal action, the same kind of "devil-may-care" or as French people say:

    "Après moi le deluge" = "After me, the flood"

    (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louis_XV_of_France)

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