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The Tale of Two Cities: An Inside Look at the Olympics in Athens

By Chris Hogg     Aug 13, 2004 in Technology
ATHENS, Digital Journal — As she looks out the window, her eyes dance from side to side, studying the familiar almond paint of a passing neighbourhood. The girl is five, maybe six years old, but acts as though she is seeing the world again for the first time. Her eyes skip like stones across calm water, gracefully and pattern-like, as though not to miss anything passing by outside. She reaches up and grabs a lock of her curly brown hair and twirls it around her finger as she waits for something, or someone, to appear. Her father wraps his arms around her and gently kisses the back of her head as she sits on his lap. He whispers something to her and she smiles widely.
“Next stop, Irini station,” the loudspeaker chants in Greek. She looks up at the voice, her mind working to figure out where it came from. She glances up at her father as he does the same.
The Olympic Stadium is the heart of this year’s Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. — Photo by Chris Hogg, djc Features
In the distance, car horns can be heard barking at the slow-moving traffic in front. Two men sit at an outdoor café sipping coffee and taking long draws from hand-rolled cigarettes.
Her mannerisms suggest it’s her first time riding the Metro, and like many Athenians, she is overwhelmed by the newly developed transportation network.
As the train pulls into the freshly painted subway stop, the nearby Maroussi Olympic complex stands waiting proudly. It’s a beautiful landscaping design of Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. It reminds me of Acropolis and the Parthenon, a civilization etched into history yet surrounded by all things new and city-like. The swooping beams of the Olympic Stadium cut a steel arc through a soft blue sky and the rainbow shirts of Olympic volunteers flock to the city squares like pigeons on bread.
The city is alive like never before.
For a long time now, the world has been bombarded with stories and media hype touting an unpredictable start for the Games. But as athletes, officials, journalists and tourists flood into the new city; I’ve noticed that many are awed by the care and detail that went into the creation of this new city. Even for those that have never been to Athens before, it doesn’t take long before one can see its history in the eyes of the city’s natives that tell of a much older time.
Now, things have moved forward, and the Olympics have given Greece a new outlook on life and their capital city. It did, however, come at a cost.
The construction of the Olympic Village cost the lives of several construction workers and has reached deep into the pockets of Greek taxpayers. Deputy Finance Minister Petros Doukas announced that the budget deficit for the first six months of 2004 was a whopping €8.7 billion (approximately $14.4 billion CDN) and the budget only allotted for €6.2 billion (approximately $10.2 billion CDN) for the entire year.
The downtown streets of Athens rest below Acropolis near the city’s core. — Photo by Chris Hogg, djc Features
It’s also expected to grow, as the Athens News reports, because of heavy overruns in Olympic preparations, the concealment of election costs by the previous government and countering effects of public sector pay raises.
Also a problem is organization; the delays in building the stadiums, roads, public transport systems and security infrastructure have made it so that organizers have not had a chance to hold large-scale crowd management tests. With volunteers, security personnel, journalists and travellers already outnumbering the city’s residents, monitoring the masses will likely be of paramount importance.
Now, the question seems, is it all worth it? The simple answer is: It depends who you ask.
“The Greeks, they always wait until the last moment,” Becky says to me as we chat about this summer’s Olympic Games. “But we still finish everything on time and I am very proud of my country,” she adds with a smile.
Attending university in Boston, she has come home to see Greece host one of the most anticipated Olympic Games in recent memory.
“I have never seen such development in my country before,” she chirps excitedly. “The technology, the transit system and the Olympic stadiums are beautiful and Greece really needed this.”
As I listen to Becky talk, I realize that the everyday norm to me is something new for her. “We never had good roads to drive on, there was no real transit and the city was covered in garbage.”
We talk for another hour and she tells me stories of her family, about her time studying in the United States and her journey back to her mother country to see the Olympics in its birthplace.
She speaks English very well, often mixing American slang with Greek. “It’s going to be awesome,” she says. “Yes,” she adds in Greek.
And her feelings are not isolated. As I move on to speak with other Greeks, I quickly find that the feeling is unanimous — hosting the Olympic Games is the best thing to ever happen to Greece. “It’s good for the city to get what it was deprived of for so long,” one man tells me. “Without the Olympics Greece would have none of this.”
A woman watches over the growing crowds gathering at Acropolis. — Photo by Chris Hogg, djc Features
Another woman told me that her neighbourhood didn’t even have “high-tech traffic lights” before now. When I looked up to see what she was pointing at, I learned that she was showing me a mere crosswalk and a standard traffic light. This is new to her.
As I talk to more and more people, I find myself smiling at the level of excitement exuded by the Greeks. Never before have I seen a culture so proud of achieving its goals and aspirations when so many people doubted. And if it wasn’t for being here, I would never have known the other side — the Greek side — to the story.
When I log on to the Internet or sift through press releases, I am bombarded with western news about more problems at the Olympics; security, construction, organizing and lifestyle are criticized to no end. I find myself wondering why the stories are so drastically different depending on where it is being written. I ask myself: Am I living in a box where this does not seem to be of concern to Athenians, or is the Western media hyperbolizing the demographic? Perhaps both?
While it is most probably both, I would have to say that I have seen a completely different side of the story. When I ride public transit in Athens, I find the buses and Metro run more efficiently and stick to their schedules more so than in Toronto.
I arrived in Athens long before the Olympics began, but the Metro has always been on time, got me to my destination quickly and with little to no hassle.
The stadiums and media centres also look very well protected, with armed guards, military and police on every corner. And the streets are cleaner than many major cities I’ve been to across North America.
Of course, every city has its bad areas, but the biggest culture shock of visiting this country to me so far has been finding the overstatements made by the media. Now I find myself wondering, why doesn’t the world know the perspective of the Greeks? How come nobody knows that they see the Games very differently?
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