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article imageRing of Fire: Protest in Athens Dampens View of the Olympic Games

By Chris Hogg     Aug 29, 2004 in Technology
Chris Hogg, Editor-in-Chief of Digital Journal, reports from Athens. — Photo by Julia Suppa
ATHENS (djc Features) — “They wrote ‘Fuck 2004’ in big letters on my stand,” Theodore Chatzistratis tells me as he points down to left corner of his tourist information booth at Syntagma Square. He’s obviously quite upset, and fidgets as he talks. “It’s nuts here in Greece right now. The people, they are friendly, but now it’s crazy.”
He speaks English well, but the passion glowing in his eyes tells the story faster than he can while trying to think of the proper English words to use. He stutters excitedly, eager to tell me what he saw. He looks left and then right, far over my shoulder.
“They burned a flag right there,” he says, pointing to the intersection only 50 metres away.
He looks over at me to see if I can take notes as fast as he is talking, then back at the road. He stares blankly at a heavily populated street as though he is re-living the demonstration in his mind’s eye. But the area is back to normal now, and hundreds of tourists follow crosswalks and street signs, migrating from Syntagma Square toward the Plaka district in central Athens.
Little time has passed since more than 1,500 protesters marched along Panepistimiou Ave. and Vas. Amalias in front of the parliament building, and the excitement still looms.
The day before, police used tear gas to disperse demonstrators who were trying to march to the U.S. Embassy to protest the visit of U.S. Secretary of State, Colin Powell. Powell was supposed to be in the city for the closing ceremonies, but later cancelled his visit, citing that “urgent responsibilities” had prevented him from coming. His visit would have included meetings with U.S. Olympic athletes and government leaders.
In addition to protesting Powell’s visit, demonstrators also gathered to protest the cost of staging the Olympic Games, including construction costs, unpaid overtime time for builders, and the toll of 13 deaths.
“The Olympics was very expensive for Greece and this hurt the people a lot,” Chatzistratis tells me. “They are mad that they will be the ones to pay for it.”
The cost of hosting the Olympics has seriously inflated Greece's public debt which is already one of Europe's biggest. Greece's accounting office has shown that the country’s public debt has already risen by 10 per cent to almost €196 billion (approx. $313 billion CDN) in the first half of 2004 — well above 100 per cent of the country's gross domestic product (GDP). Ministry officials say the higher costs are, for the most part, a product of borrowing money to finish building the Olympic infrastructure.
And the people aren’t happy about it.
The protests shut down everything for journalists, athletes and others trying to travel to the city centre where many hotels are located. Trying to catch a bus near the Olympic Stadium, a volunteer told me that no buses were running and that the Metro is the only mode of transportation to go anywhere near the city centre.
“Am I alright to go down there?” I overheard a woman working for NBC say. “I’ve heard it’s out of control, and I don’t want to get close if it’s that bad.”
She paces while she talks on her cell phone, then sits on a nearby stone block to wait for the media shuttle to take us to the Metro. She moves about uneasily for 10 minutes until the shuttle arrives, then takes a deep breath and gets on.
I was trying to get to Syntagma early to check things out, but it was getting late, and the delays had really backed things up. I had been away from any news feeds for a while, so I too was unsure of what lied in front of me as I travelled into the heart of the action.
The shuttle took us to the Metro where everyone was forced to cram into cars and stand shoulder-to-shoulder. The staggering Athenian heat was multiplied ten-fold by the vast amount of people jammed into the small space. But there was no other choice, as all other transportation could not get through by road. I had seen notices warning of the protests all week, but thought nothing of them. I didn’t think they would turn out like they did.
It began very peacefully until protesters met more than 500 police officers in riot gear. Upon finding the resistance, demonstrators began to light fires, smash windows and beat up journalists.
In addition to protesting Powell’s visit, demonstrators also gathered to protest the cost of staging the Olympic Games, including construction costs, unpaid overtime time for builders, and the toll of 13 deaths. — Photo courtesy of

The city streets near Monastiraki Metro Station are packed full of people only minutes after nearby clashes ended between police and protesters at the parliament buildings in Syntagma Square. — Photo by Chris Hogg, djc Features

“The protests aren’t good for the world to see right now,” Chatzistratis says to me, shaking his head in disapproval. “We are celebrating right now with the Olympics, but this will make things look very bad. We needed to do this after the Games.”
He looks down again at my notebook to see if I’m still scribbling, then back out at the street.
“It’s too bad,” he concludes plainly.
Once the word arrived that Powell had cancelled his visit, many Greeks all over the city claimed victory, and further demonstrations were cancelled.
In a Greek translation of a letter sent by Powell, he said he would delay his visit until October so his meetings could concentrate on “subjects of mutual interest” at a time when Greece would not be involved with the Olympics. Kurtis Cooper, a department spokesperson from Washington, said the protests played no role in the decision to cancel, and that the visit was called off because of “the press of business” in the U.S.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has tiptoed around the issue as a whole. Giselle Davies, a spokesperson for the IOC, has only said, “The IOC isn't focusing on any one individual guest who is coming to the Games.”
Protesting against U.S. foreign policy is not an uncommon event in Greece. Many Greeks are anti-American because of the U.S. support of a military junta which persecuted its leftist opponents from 1967 to 1974.
Also, during a visit by U.S. President Bill Clinton in 1999, downtown Athens was turned into a riot zone when protesters clashed with police.
But today, the Greeks are also upset by the United States’ role in Iraq.
“The Greeks are against the unjustified war in Iraq,” says Athanasios G., who asked to have surname kept anonymous. “Mr. Powell is just a victim of circumstance.”
He looks at me to study the reaction on my face. I look blankly back at him, waiting to see if he will say more, but instead he looks over at the street, reflecting on what he saw the night before. He is very articulate and passionate about the topic of discussion, and waits patiently for the next question to roll of my tongue. We started talking because he stopped me to offer his help after he saw me speaking with a nearby taxi driver. He excitedly answers my onslaught of questioning
“It’s well known that Greeks are democrats that like to voice themselves,” he says.
He alludes to the fact that protests have been common in Greece for decades, and that this weekend’s protests have only been under the spotlight because of the Olympics. Greece has seen many other demonstrations over the years, including those led by prominent politicians and government officials.
“You would not hear about this if the Olympics weren’t here. But, even so, there is nothing wrong with a democratic act. When Mr. Powell returns in October, the world will hear nothing.”
But the Olympics offers the eyes of the world, so there is no better place to let your voice be heard. And with the U.S. having such a strong presence in Athens — by population and the attention received by the number of medals they’ve received — it gives the protesters a chance to directly tell Americans that they disagree with the U.S. war and occupation of Iraq.
And because of the war, which has contributed to negative international views of the United States, many Greeks also believe it’s the U.S.’s fault for the extraordinary security levels needed for the Games, and thus the reason they will have to pull out their chequebooks when it’s all over.
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