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Olympic City Lives While Sport Dies: Athens and the Story of its New Era

By Chris Hogg     Aug 22, 2004 in Technology
ATHENS, djc features — The white marble of the Roman Agora shines under the deep blue lights. Ancient pillars stand tall guarding onlookers and the night sky paints a dusty black canvas behind Acropolis.
I am sitting waiting for the performance to begin, all around, excitement buzzes through an attentive crowd. An older Greek couple in the front row nibbles on fresh peaches, while a young boy sketches in the dirt at his feet.
“This is a very special and rare occasion,” the woman sitting next to me says. She smiles widely, foreshadowing the feeling of what is to come. “This is art,” she concludes confidently.
World famous singer, Elli Paspala, sings at the Roman Agora in Athens, Greece for the first time since 1986. — Photo by Chris Hogg, djc Features
The lights dim and applause pulsates from every direction. Evanthia Rebutsika appears in the spotlight in a fiery red dress and a matching violin. She walks gracefully to the tune of the orchestra before bringing her violin to her chin and saddling it on her shoulder.
The concert is outdoors in the ancient ruins of Agora, a forum built by Julius Caesar as an extension of the Greek agora. A mix of monuments from different eras, it includes a mosque built after the Byzantine Empire was conquered in 1453.
The stage is flanked by thousands of people, and no inch of space is unoccupied in the football field-sized concert arena. The octagonal Tower of the Winds stands behind the stage. A sundial and water-powered clock in 1st-century B.C. when it was built, it now greets visitors to the ancient ruins.
Hugging the ruins is a cast-iron gate that protects the site from the cobblestone roads filled with people, motorcycles and passing cars. It is lined with hundreds more watching the free concert from the streets, and above them, rooftops are filled with even people perched for the rare show.
The crowd erupts in applause, snapping me from my daydreams. Elli Paspala takes the stage and begins to sing a Hellenic song with the orchestra chanting a gentle rhythm behind her. She is known worldwide for her unique style of singing opera, jazz and ethnic music, as she sings in English, German, Greek, Italian and Japanese. Having made her mark in the opera in New York, the woman from Astoria has become distinguished in both Greece and abroad.
Thousands of people gather at the Roman Agora to watch a live concert of world-renowned singer Elli Paspala in Athens, Greece. — Photo by Chris Hogg, djc Features
“Athens has energy and the place is moving,” she says to me as she comes off the stage. “It’s nice to be here during the Olympics because it’s been some time since I last performed here.”
Paspala last performed in Athens in 1986, so this was a rare moment of history where thousands of travellers and locals could meet in one place to see a legend. She was discovered in 1982 by the legendary Manos Hadjidakis on the last day of a visit to Athens, and now her face beams on billboards all across the city.
“It’s a very warm feeling to be here at the centre of a communion,” she says. “I have a deeper sense of understanding of the city and the people.”
She speaks quickly and hides behind a dashing smile. Her travels across the globe are obvious in her conversation, as she mixes feeling, emotion, religion and ideas of self into a poetic verse.
She tells me she will be moving on to Crete on August 30 to give another performance at an ancient site, but adds that her concert during the Olympics is very special for her just as much as the audience.
It’s 11:30 p.m. now, and the city around us is booming.
Chris Hogg, Editor-in-Chief of Digital Journal magazine mixes in with the crowd at Syntagma Square in Athens, Greece. — Photo by Julia Suppa, djc Features
Outside the concert, thousands of people gather at cafés and quaint restaurants. Couples walk hand-in-hand, the smell of gyros and souvlaki tickle the air.
I’ve never seen a city so alive in the middle of the week, and I am quickly told that it will last all night long. Amazing, I thought to myself.
Only half the stadium filled up at the Women’s Gymnastics Team Finals at the Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. — Photo by Chris Hogg, djc Features
It’s a drastic contrast to what I have seen at Olympic venues. When I recently attended the women’s Team Finals for gymnastics, I was very surprised to see the stadium was surging with journalists and volunteers, but the spectator seats lay cold and empty. The half-filled stadium — or half-empty, depending on how you look at it — was most likely a product of a €200 ticket price (per seat).
“The organizers have big problems now,” I overheard one journalist comment. “They want to lower ticket prices to fill more seats, but how can you give away tickets when others have spent a fortune?”
He’s right.
Also, lowering ticket prices (even just slightly) might have filled the seats and generated more money from the sale of food, water, pop and beer. Not to mention the possible revenues from merchandise and increased tourism.
Michael Phelps warms up before winning his fourth gold medal at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. — Photo by Chris Hogg, djc Features
Tickets are so over-priced, in fact, that many Athenians have told me that only rich tourists can afford to go. The average salary in Athens makes it impossible for them to attend anything like this event. For a country that has waited so long and has been forced to accept so many changes, it seems a bit unfair to make it inaccessible even to its indigenous people. Here in Athens, many people are not happy with this situation.
Sadly, though, Greek tragedies are not limited to just half-filled stadiums.
Plagued by scandals, this Olympic Games falls way short of the near-perfect planning and care demonstrated at the Opening Ceremonies. With the continuing problems of doping tests of Greek athletes Costas Kenteris and Katerina Thanou, there seems to be a lot more action happening behind the scenes than on the field. Where is the care now, that was planned so much then?
And there was also the case of the Canadian man jumping into the pool wearing only a tutu and a smile. Demonstrating a major threat to security, Athens is still stirring over what is to be done to prevent this from happening again.
In addition, levels of security and organization seem to fluctuate depending on where you go and what you do. So far, my experience has been very positive at the International Broadcasting Center and the Main Press Center, as security has been very thorough and tight. But Olympic venues are a different story; they are run, for the most part, by volunteers who stand inside the stadiums. I have found that, if you speak English fast enough and move along without asking too many questions, volunteers often can’t figure out how to tell you to “stop” or “move” in English before you are gone out of their sights. In fact, just pretending you don’t hear them has worked for me, allowing me to sit in seats that I did not have a ticket for.
Michael Phelps celebrates with team mate Ryan Lochte after the two won gold and silver medals at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. — Photo by Chris Hogg, djc Features
All this is such a damning contrast to the liveliness of the city streets and the beauty of outdoor concerts. If there is at least one positive thing that will come out of this year’s Games, it’s that the city has been revitalized and culture, art, lifestyle and fashion are re-emerging. This could be all the city needs to give birth to a new era of communion, camaraderie and celebration. And hopefully it will continue long after the Games have left.
But the Olympic Games might be another story altogether. And perhaps the maxim, “If you build it, they will come,” should be revised to read: “If you build it, make it affordable."
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