Olympic Mess

Paul Wood July 24 2000

Olympic Mess

Paul Wood July 24 2000

Olympic Mess


The International Olympic Committee has threatened to pull the 2004 Games from Greece

Paul Wood

It seemed like a natural thing—holding the 2004 Olympic Games in Greece, where the tradition began more than 2,700 years ago. But now, three years after the International Olympic Committee awarded Athens the Games, there is growing pessimism over whether they will ever get on track. The latest debacle: despite moving into an expensive new headquarters in a black-marble building just three months ago, organizers are leaving, following complaints that the presence of a supermarket in the basement cheapens the high ideals of the Olympic movement. But there are more serious concerns—including the threat of terrorism. And construction of many venues is so far behind that, in the wake of a May visit by IOC inspectors, IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch threatened to move the Games to another country, forcing Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis

to declare the Games to be in a “state of emergency.”

The panic surrounding the Greek Games was clearly evident to members ofToronto’s 2008 Olympic bid committee when they attended a recent international gathering of Games officials in Sydney—host of this years Games in September. “You could smell the fear” in the Greek camp, said one highranking Canadian official. “Ifs a disaster.” In April, a stinging IOC report identified a long list of problems facing Athens. A new airport to deal with thousands of extra visitors has not been finished, an extra 25,000 hotel rooms still have to be constructed and the International Olympic Village is so far nothing but a barren tract of scmb land being grazed by a few goats. The IOC has given Greece until Aug. 23 to show that progress is being made—or they may lose the Games. Said a Greek Olympic official in summing up the challenge ahead: “The situation is not as bad as it seems—it’s worse.”

The thought of losing the Games, which were founded in ancient Greece in 776 B.C., has triggered a national panic. “A slap in the face for Greece,” shouted a headline in the leading Greek newspaper Eleftherotypia (Freedom of Speech). Its main editorial bluntly concluded, “internationally, we are a laughingstock.” In May, when Prime Minister Simitis took charge of the event, he immediately drafted Gianna

The murder of a British military attaché raises fears of terrorism in Athens

Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, who led Athens winning bid for the Games, as the new president of the organizing committee. The charismatic 44-yearold lawyer, who replaced out-going president, Panagiotis Thomopoulos, took the job after being promised a free hand in forcing through reforms. One of her first acts was to fire the managing director of the organizing committee, at a rumoured cost of $1 million.

A bill to speed up the Olympic preparations by cutting through Greece’s legendary red tape was also pushed through Parliament on June 22. It will simplify the tendering process for the major projects still to be completed—although some fear it will give rise to corruption and crony-

ism in the awarding of contracts. The Cultural Olympiad, which will accompany the Games and showcase Greek culture, was among a number of other problems cited by the IOC as contributing to the delays threatening the Athens Olympics. In response, Simitis appointed renowned Cypriot film director, Michael Cacoyannis, best known for Zorba the Greek, to head the cultural event.

How serious was Samaranch’s threat to move the Games? David Chernushenko of Ottawa, a member of the IOC, said Olympic officials can realistically do little more than hope that the Greek organizers rebound in time. “Barring going back to a previous Olympic site, I’m not sure any other city is further ahead,” said Chernushenko. “Not to mention the politics behind moving the Games.” Prime Minister Simitis has dismissed the threat to move the event, saying that making the Olympics a success is now the government’s top priority. And despite the doubts, Dimitras Reppas, a government spokesman, said Greece is ready for the remrn of IOC inspectors. “Many problems cropped up in the course of the preparations in May when the IOC last visited,” he said. “This is a sign of our determination to succeed. It is not a sign of failure.”

To stage a successful Olympics, Greek police will also have to provide assurances they can control terrorism—especially after the June 6 murder in Athens of Britain’s military attaché to Greece, Brigadier Stephen Saunders, by the far-left group November 17. Not one single member of November 17 has been caught during the shadowy organization’s 25 years of politically motivated assassinations. And the United States, in particular, has been scathing of Greece’s anti-terrorist efforts.

The state department’s annual report, Patterns of Global Terrorism, says that Greece is second only to Colombia in the number of “terrorist” attacks.

Former CIA director James Woolsey also angered many Greeks when he told journalists that the chances of someone “getting killed” at the 2004 Games are “pretty good.” He also claimed the government has failed to move against the November 17 terrorists because they are connected to leading members of Greek society. “If not the identities,

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There are also growing concerns that some powerful Olympic corporate sponsors might pull out of the Games because of the terrorist threat. The London-based security analysts, Control Risks Group, warned of the dangers in a recent confidential briefing for their corporate clients. “Ultra-leftists may stage attacks to mark their opposition to the 2004 Olympic Games,” the briefing says. “Opposition to the Games will include demonstrations and possibly sporadic attacks.” Reppas dismisses those fears, claiming necessary measures have been taken to ensure the Olympics will take place in complete security. “I assure you,” he said, “that anyone can drink their coffee anywhere in Greece and Athens without the slightest hint of danger.” Reppass statements, however, were almost immediately undermined by Public Order Minister Michalis Chrisohoides, who admitted that Greece did not yet possess the expertise to protect Olympic athletes, officials and visitors. “The security of the Olympic Games is know-how,” he said. “It is knowledge that we do not have. We have to acquire it.”

The growing confusion surrounding the Athens Games comes at a critical time for organizers of Toronto’s Olympic bid. In late August, the IOC will inform Toronto and other hopefuls whether they will be selected as finalists in the race to host the 2008 Games, with a final decision expected next July. Chernushenko said the events in Athens could make securing the Games even tougher—by increasing the scrutiny the IOC brings to bids. That fact is not lost on Karen Pitre, vice-president of the Toronto bid committee. She says her team has made close contacts with Australia’s successful Olympic organizing group in the hope of avoiding critical mistakes. But before 2008, the Olympic movement must still successfully complete the 2004 Games—and hope that Greece gets its house in order.

Tom Fennell