"I hope you're not late," the cabdriver said, risking my life along with his yellow paint job as he wove precariously past double-parked cars clogging the Athens streets. "The city is all torn up with construction for the Olympics. What do you think is going to happen with those?Are we going to come off 'red-faced'?" he asked nervously.
The same question nags at every Athenian, from cabbies to Cabinet members. Will the 2004 Olympics—to be held in Athens for the first time since the Games were revived there in 1896, and just the second time since 393—be a source of national pride, or an embarrassment confirming Greece's low status in the European Union?Because the Athens organizers don't just want to host nice little athletic contests and hand out a few medals—they want to announce to the world that Greece is a strong, modern European nation. As Prime Minister Costas Simitis has said, "Every discussion about the Olympic Games in Athens is a discussion about the country's future."
The 2004 Olympics come at a key juncture for Greece, which has shifted from being the E.U.'s poorest country to becoming a leader in the Balkans, a position that has grown increasingly important ever since the E.U. welcomed 10 new member-states in April (more are expected to join). Greece has the fastest economic growth rate in Europe, partly because of investment for the Olympics. Over the past decade, its largely homogeneous population has absorbed in a surprisingly peaceful fashion more than a million immigrants from its Balkan neighbors and other formerly Communist countries. For the city of Athens itself, the Olympics are even more of a coming-out party. "I would really like to show ancient and modern Athens to the world in a very new light," says Mayor Dora Bakoyannis, who in January became the first female leader in Athens's 3,000-year history, and the first of any city to hold the Olympics. "Everybody going back [home] will have fallen in love with Athens."
When the International Olympic Committee awarded Athens the Games in 1997, critics argued that there wasn't much to love about a city that was considered polluted, crowded, and plagued by domestic troubles ranging from stray dogs to terrorist assassins. The arch-conservative Washington Times later ran an editorial suggesting that President Bush urge the IOC to relocate the Games, citing the Greek government's inability to quash the November 17 terrorist group. Named after the 1973 date when the military junta then ruling Greece sent tanks against a student protest at the Athens Polytechnic Institute, the Marxist group targeted right-wing Greek politicians as well as diplomats from foreign countries—such as Britain and the United States—whose governments were believed to have supported the junta. November 17 had claimed 23 victims in 28 years.
The Athens Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (ATHOC), still smarting from losing its bid to host the 1996 centennial Games, won over the IOC with big promises: the Metro would be expanded, a new airport built, hotels upgraded, the city transformed. Yet 2 1/2 years on, it seemed that ATHOC was all talk and no action. In April 2000, the IOC's then-president, Juan Antonio Samaranch, warned that preparations were so behind schedule, the Games were in danger of being relocated.
Some delays were to be expected: with not quite 11 million citizens and a combined landmass smaller than Alabama, Greece is one of the tiniest countries to undertake an Olympics. And everywhere, Athens's rich ancient past kept popping up—literally. Metro extensions were hindered for years as construction workers routinely unearthed fifth-century b.c. bronze statues where 21st-century subway platforms were meant to go. This had not been a problem in Sydney or Atlanta. But many setbacks could be blamed on legendary Greek bureaucracy, or what John Hadoulis, a reporter for the Athens News, describes as "the arduous process of land appropriation, and the plethora of court cases brought against many venues by local citizens' groups." Not to mention the government's internal politics. Since being awarded the Olympics, Greece has had four ministers of culture and two public works ministers; ATHOC itself is now on its third chief, Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, a lawyer-politician and national celebrity known for her stylish suits and steely determination.