"The Olympics came home and we showed the world the great things Greece can do - Athens was great for athletes and Greece was great for the Games."
Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, President, Athens 2004 Organising Committee (ATHOC)
And what a glorious homecoming it was!
Athens, and indeed the whole of Greece lived through spectacular days in the summer of 2004.
To the chagrin of all those who said that we wouldn't make it, Athens not only made it, it showed the world what glorious things could be achieved! The smallest country ever , but also the only one whose history alone entitled it to host the Olympics, put on the greatest Olympics ever.
All those Cassandras who predicted that we would be painting and nailing right through to the Closing Ceremony were proved wrong! Our Australian friends, who should have known better, and should have been more sympathetic, after having hosted their own Olympics four years earlier in Sydney in 2000, were amongst the most critical unfortunately!
But Greeks invented satire and proved that more than anything, we knew how to laugh at ourselves...
At the pre-show, just before the Opening Ceremony began, Greek French Showman Nikos Aliagas, in blue workers' overalls, hammered in the last nail and beamed ecstatically, 'At last, we're finished!', before he took off the overalls and settled in to present the show, receiving ecstatic laughter and thundering applause from the 70,000+ audience!
The greatest ever celebration of youth and sport was about to begin, and Athens was in celebration mode!
Let the Games Begin!
And the Games began!!! And what incredible Games they were...
Dimitri Papaioannou's magnificent Opening Ceremony set the tone for the days that were to follow!
For all those who were in Athens during those magical 30 days, for all those who worked for the Olympics, either directly or indirectly, either as paid staff or as volunteers, the experience was one we will never forget!
For us, Athens changed incredibly and for the better!
For 30 days, Athens was a gracious and wonderful hostess to the World and like a real Diva, lived up to her myth! The atmosphere was superb and Athens had its own unique way of making every day memorable! Hundreds of thousands of people, athletes, officials, our extraordinary volunteers, including 3500 volunteers of Greek origin from Australia to Uruguay (more about these very special volunteers in another post), gave of their very best and thus achieved the ultimate!
The years of upheaval as the whole city underwent major structural and constructional changes and in fact became one huge construction site, paid off - it all pulled together beautifully just like the Calatrava Roof on the Olympic Stadium, just weeks before the Opening Ceremony.
As Jacques Rogge, the President of the International Olympic Committee so aptly said
"Athens' preparations for the Games are like the Syrtaki - It starts very slowly, it accelerates and by the end you can't keep up with the pace."
We lived through magnificent, glorious days in August of 2004, forgetting all the problems as the countdown began for the best ever Olympic Games!
The IOC President might not have said exactly that at the closing Ceremony 16 days later, but he said enough to ensure that the Athens Olympics would leave their own mark in history, along with the first Modern Olympics of 1896, and the Classic Olympics of Antiquity!
Efharistoume, Athena! Thank you, Athens!
Dear Greek friends, you have won. You have won by brilliantly meeting the tough challenge of holding the Games.
Photo:Mike Blake for Reuters
The next day, and for many days after, while competition continued and it became obvious that Athens' Olympics were a great success, the apologies came pouring in! To the credit of all concerned, these apologies (see below for just a few examples) were pretty generous, albeit sometimes a little tongue-in-cheek!
Athens 2004 Closing Ceremony
Photo: Arko Datta for Reuters
Ευχαριστουμε Ελλάδα! Efharistoume Ellada!
Greece, we thank you from the bottom of our hearts for those unforgettable, magical moments !!
And then the apologies came rolling in from every side ....
We were wrong
Rick Reilly in SI 31 August 2004
Greece overcame the world's paranoia to stage a glorious GamesDear Athens,
Well, we feel bad. We really owe you an apology.
To the People of Greece: We Apologize
San Jose Mercury News
Posted on Sat, Aug. 21, 2004
Their Olympics are going beautifully. Just like they expected. After all, they invented this business.
For years, we heard how miserable these Olympics would be, how dangerous, how choked with traffic, how polluted, how unfinished. After just a couple of days, some observers turned in an instant thumbs-down on the Games. No atmosphere. No crowds. The horror – gymnastics wasn’t even sold out!
Such rips are ridiculous. For one thing, you can’t judge the Olympics until they start. And, in reality, the Athens Games didn’t start until Friday, when track and field got under way.
Olympic atmosphere comes from 160,000 people streaming into the park every day. And that can only happen when track starts. Until then, the Olympic park seems deserted even with 30,000 people inside it.
Saturday night, the upper bowl of Olympic Stadium was filled with rippling blue and white Greek flags and fans cheering for runners and discus throwers. The roar of the crowd rose into the Athens night. You couldn’t convince anyone there that these Games have no atmosphere.
So far these Games get a huge thumbs-up from this corner. And not just because I set my personal bar so low – my goal was to come home alive. I swore I wouldn’t whine about slow buses or hot weather.
I’m still alive and feeling sheepish about all my worries. The heightened security is evident but not oppressive. The fear-mongering has dissolved into a happy Olympic atmosphere where Canadian fans wander around in togas and olive wreaths drinking Mythos beer. The Games aren’t over, but so far, Athens feels very safe.
And there hasn’t been much to whine about. The buses run on time. The taxis are cheap. The phones work. Even the weather has cooperated, with temperature mostly in the 90s during the days, but not the 100-plus heat that had been advertised.
Are they as great as the Sydney Summer Olympics, which drew rave reviews? So far, they’re not far behind (and gymnastics wasn’t sold out there either – not everyone loves the little pixies as much as Americans).
The scene at Darling Harbor was terrific – but the crowded cafes of the Plaka, in the shadow of the Acropolis, are almost as lively.
Are these Games as great as Barcelona, which I didn’t attend but many veteran Olympic writers say is their favorite? They’re not far behind – and they’re beating Barcelona in ticket sales.
And how do they compare to Atlanta? There is no comparison. The United States hosted the worst Summer Olympics of the modern mega-Games era.
Everything people feared would happen here actually did happen in Atlanta: There was a bombing, the buses didn’t run on time, the computer system didn’t function, the crowds were suffocating and the weather was oppressive. Greece, the smallest country to host an Olympics in 52 years and one of the poorest countries in the European Union, is outperforming the world’s super power.
On Saturday, Athens was abuzz. The efficient new metro system was packed with fans heading to every venue. Inside the Olympic park every event except trampoline was sold out (and you’re not going to hold it against the Athenians if they don’t support trampoline, are you?).
On Friday, 244,144 fans went to 47 events. Ticket sales have reached 3.2 million – close to the target of 3.4 million – and they’re not done yet. The fact that most Athenians were on vacation until last week is part of the Games’ new energy.
Not only were the Greeks underestimated, their capital city has been mistreated. For those of us who haven’t been here before, Athens is a surprising delight.
Yes, it’s crowded and poorly laid out. But it has dazzling historic sites around almost every corner, restaurants and bars that stay open until almost dawn, and wonderful, gracious hosts.
It also has a terrific coastline along the Saronic Gulf. A new tram runs along the water, and Saturday it carried both Olympic spectators and sunbathers. The beaches were packed and Athenians bobbed in the sparkling water.
The first eight days have been a success. I told my cabdriver how impressed I was.
“Of course,” he said and shrugged. What did you expect from the folks who came up with idea in the first place?
By Zeus, the Greeks are great again!
Instead of sneering at the supposed failings of the Olympic hosts, the British should address their own inadequacies
Sunday August 15, 2004
If the Games go as well and remain incident-free – and the Greeks have spent a record £900 million providing security for the event – the organisers may just succeed in proving that Athens is no longer Europe’s Christian Orthodox ‘odd-man out’. That, actually, it can very effectively ‘organise its way out of a paper bag’. But will the Olympics also change the prejudices against Hellenes?
In Britain, it seems, there is still a readiness to think of the Greeks as barely civilised: they are all called Zorba, sport bushy moustaches and smash plates. If not that, then they are corrupt southern Europeans with a criminal justice system that goes out of its way to target British plane spotters. Such stereotypes are born of an idea of Greece as a Balkan backwater, a country that has no place in the European Union.
Again and again, in the course of reporting from Greece, I have met such prejudices. What still surprises me, though, is the extent to which they appear to have colonised the minds of people I might otherwise respect.
A year spent in the irrepressibly progressive environment of Harvard, as the new century dawned, only served to highlight how entrenched and peculiarly British such views tend to be. Like our fondness for that cliche of Greeks bearing gifts, we seem unable to abandon our belief that modern Greece is a contradiction in terms. Increasingly, I find myself thinking the British, rather than the Greeks, are trapped in outdated mindsets.
As a Briton, I find much to squirm about, whether it’s the Elgin marbles or my compatriots running wild in vomit-splattered Faliraki or feckless, bare-breasted English girls being incarcerated in Greek jails, which are, naturally, described as ‘medieval’ in the British press.
Few ever stop to think how the British might behave if hordes of unprepossessing, out-of-control Greeks invaded our coasts? More often than not, Greek authorities react to such excesses with a leniency far beyond the call of duty.
No one can deny the Greeks’ bewildering last-minute work ethic. In recent months, preparations for the Games appeared so chaotic that they bordered on the burlesque. But, sadly, stereotypes tend to colour political views.
What people tend to forget is just how far the Greeks have come. Three decades ago, Athens was under the iron grip of small-minded military dictators, men as intent on banning mini-skirts as banishing leftists to remote island prisons.
Now, Hellenes worry not about human rights or the rule of law, but consumer goods and their second homes overlooking the sea. It is all the more miraculous when you remember that before the colonels came years of wars, coups and near-constant political and social unrest.
It is true that with their extraordinary ability to be their own worst enemy, the tumult was often self-inflicted. The disastrous 1923 Pelepponese campaign, subject of Louis de Berniere’s latest book, did not enhance the country’s reputation. Nor did Athens’s fiercely pro-Serbian and less than magnanimous stance in the recent Balkan wars.
But Greece is changing. Just as the country is no longer the economic laggard of the European Union (at around 4 per cent, its GDP growth rates are the second highest in the eurozone), it is no longer the political juvenile of yore. The trenchant nationalism of the 1980s and early 1990s is no more; instead of generating firebrand politicians with only thinly disguised dreams of conquering Constantinople, it produces men and women who want only to improve relations with Turkey.
Progressive immigration policies, an area for which Greece deserves more credit, are rapidly changing the country’s ethnic make-up. Around 10 per cent of its 11-million strong population are now foreign-born, mostly Albanian, although increasingly from the former Soviet republics, Africa and the Middle East. Admittedly, Greece was never a multicultural paradise; treatment of newcomers has not always been exemplary. But I have often wondered what the reaction would be in other European countries to such a great influx.
In years to come, others might contemplate the wisdom of tasking small states such as Greece with the organisation of a show such as the Olympics. But of one thing there can be no doubt: no other single event has so effectively transformed or revitalised Athens in the 180-plus years since Greece won independence from the Ottoman Turks.
In one fell swoop, it seems, the Greeks have cleaned up their act. They have cracked the nasty November 17 (the group that killed British military attache Stephen Saunders); they’ve used EU funds and dug deep into their coffers to build highways, a sophisticated transport network, a gleaming new airport and a metro system that makes the London Underground look primitive.
They haven’t built a new Acropolis Museum yet, but they’ve united all their ancient masterpieces into a giant and spectacular archaeological park, no mean feat in a city of more than four million people. How long has it taken to even agree to build London’s Crossrail? It is unlikely it will be ready by 2012.
The Olympics Are Ending: Now Athens Pays for a Nice Party