Athens Olympics deemed ‘waste of money and all for show’ as venues crumble
It was billed as a chance to transform Greece’s image abroad and boost growth, but 10 years after the country hosted the world’s greatest sporting extravaganza, there is little to celebrate at the birthplace of the modern Olympic Games.
Many of the once-gleaming Olympic venues have been abandoned, while others are used occasionally for events such as conferences and weddings.
At the former Olympic rowing centre in the town of Marathon, which gave its name to the endurance race, stray dogs play among overgrown weeds as a dozen youths train in the water. Across the city, the former canoe and kayak venue has dried up, and entire banks of spectator seats have been ripped out.
Just days before the 10th anniversary of the 2004 Games, and as Brazil gears up for the 2016 Rio Olympics, many question how Greece, among the smallest countries to host the Games, has benefited from the multi-billion-dollar event.
For Greeks who swelled with pride at the time, the Games have become a source of anger as the country struggles through a six-year depression, record unemployment, homelessness and poverty.
“They spent money they didn’t have – our money, taxpayers’ money – on a big party,” said Eleni Goliou, who runs a grocery store in the capital. “You see any money left for a celebration?”
After failing in a bid to host the centennial Olympics in 1996, Greece, founder of the ancient and modern Olympics, was awarded the 2004 Games after defeating favourites Rome.
When then-International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Juan Antonio Samaranch declared the result, the Greek delegation, including former Prime Minister George Papandreou erupted with joy, waved flags and hugged one another. The announcement, remixed by a DJ, was replayed on radio stations and was subsequently released as a single.
However, after the initial euphoria, Athens wasted the first three years of its seven-year preparation period, only to be given a warning by the IOC in 2000 to drastically step up its organisation efforts or risk losing the Games.
The country then embarked on a construction frenzy, paying lavishly for three shifts a day to ensure that venues were ready.
New trams, highways and a host of gleaming Olympic venues appeared alongside outdated infrastructure in the sun-drenched capital of four million people. The Games cost Greece an estimated US$11 billion (Dh40.4bn), double initial projections.
“It was a waste of money and all for show,” said Dimitris Mardas, an economics professor at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.
Unlike other host cities, whose venues included prefabricated, collapsible structures, Athens opted for heavy buildings which “only served the interests of contractors,” Mardas said.
Greece’s Public Properties Company (ETAD), which took over some of the Olympic venues in 2011, dismisses criticism that they are in poor condition, saying in a statement the facilities under its supervision “are being maintained by specialised teams... while the properties are guarded by security firms.”
Like Athens, Rio, which will host the Games for the first time on the South American continent, has come under fire for slow progress, with preparations slammed as the “worst ever” by IOC vice president John Coates in April.
In an effort to reassure the world they can deliver the facilities on time, Brazilian authorities unveiled in the same month an infrastructure budget of £6.39bn (Dh 39.5bn) for the Games, 25 per cent more than planned.
Researchers at Oxford University who studied the Games held from 1960 to 2012 and found that, while other mega-projects are on budget from time to time, the Games overrun with 100 per cent consistency.
Greece had a cost overrun of 97 per cent, they said.
“For a city and nation to decide to host the Olympic Games is to take on one of the most financially risky types of mega-project that exists,” researchers Bent Flyvbjerg and Allison Stewart wrote. “Something that many cities and nations have learned to their peril.”
Critics complain that subsequent governments also failed to boost post-Olympics tourism in the country, its biggest industry. Just a year after the Olympics, hotels built for spectators closed down.
“The [economic] crisis should have been the extra push, the pressure to capitalise on the Olympic legacy,” said Stratos Safioleas, a spokesman during the 2004 Games and a consultant for Olympic bids and organising committees since, including the winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in 2018.
“The Games were a lost opportunity, no doubt about it. But we still have Ancient Olympia, we still have Marathon. The question is, when are we going to stop missing opportunities?”
Greece’s Hellenic Olympic Committee denies accusations that costs to host the Games contributed to Greece’s debt crisis that exploded in 2009 and forced it to seek two bailouts worth €240bn (Dh 1.2 trillion) from the European Union and International Monetary Fund.
“They cost €8.5 billion. Was the eight billion to blame when Greece owed 360 billion?” Hellenic Olympic Committee head Spyros Kapralos said.
“If you put it on a scale, the positives outweigh the negatives, but unfortunately we weren’t able to communicate that. The face of the city changed.”
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