Post-Olympics, Greece is Poised to Make a Splash


The Stamford Advocate
Sept 3, 2006

Staff Writer Vesna Jaksic traveled to Greece in June as part of Internews organization’s 2006 Greek Cultural Fellowship, which allowed 12 U.S. journalists to spend a week in Athens to study post-Olympics Greece.

By Vesna Jaksic

ATHENS – Nick Spanos has worked on the grounds of the Athens Olympic Stadium since it opened in 1982 for the European Athletics Championships. But his job has gotten busier since the 2004 Summer Games, with the new and improved venue now often being booked for sporting events, concerts and shows, he says.

“An expression we say here,” Spanos, 48, says as he drives a golf cart outside the stadium, “we are in the middle of Earth.”

The Olympic Games have left Greece with a large bill, but have also allowed it to host some of Europe’s biggest events. As this mid-sized European country recovers from the financial burden of the Games, Greek officials hope its post-Olympic image and modern infrastructure will help it play a stronger role in the region and attract more tourists from around the globe.

Held in August 2004 in Athens and its surrounding communities, the 2004 Summer Games hosted 205 countries, the most in modern history. But the Games also cost Greece twice as much as expected, leaving a price tag of 9 billion euros, or approximately $11.5 billion in U.S. dollars.
“We tried immediately after the Games to capitalize this event in order to be able to face the costs,” says Evripidis Stylianidis, Greece’s deputy minister of foreign affairs.

Greek officials say a lot of the infrastructure built for the Olympics was long overdue, such as a new airport, new roads and a new metro system. Many Greeks acknowledge that they are known for procrastinating and last-minute planning, and the Olympics sped up the modernization process.

“I cannot call it all Olympic debt because certain things were done that had to be done, things that might have taken 10, 15 years to do but were done in three or four years,” says Emmanuel Kondopirakis, secretary general of the National Statistical Service of Greece.

Thanks to the Olympics, Athens now has an underground subway system with shiny marble floors. Many stations resemble museums, with their glass-case displays of the ruins found during the excavations. Tourists often snap pictures inside the Acropolis subway stop, which has sculptures that were once on the famous hill.

Traffic monitoring cameras can be found on many street corners in Athens, a product of security preparation for the Olympics. Greek hospitals received $180 million worth of equipment purchased for the Games. Fifteen thousand flat-screen TVs have been distributed to government offices, hospitals and public sector organizations, says Spyros Cladas, general secretary for Olympic utilization.

“It’s impossible to pay back the 9.2 billion,” he says. “What we can do is to give the people the benefits and cut the costs.”

Athens residents had mixed opinions about the Olympics.

“During the Olympics, business was good,” says Costas Zaharopoulou, 34, who works with his father at Greco Souvenir, one of dozens of shops in Plaka, Athens’ picturesque old town. “But now everything goes higher – taxes, electricity, telephone. Olympics was good, but now the Greeks must pay. Everything goes up except for the salaries.”

Hasan Salehusein, 58, who sells 12 kinds of olives as well as pickles and grape leaves at an outdoor food market, says he and the other vendors had to move their stands to make room for pedestrians during the Olympics, but did not reap any benefits.

“They worked to make it nice for people coming to Olympics,” he says. “For us, it’s not better.”

Others, such as Spanos, from the Olympic Stadium, says Athens is now enjoying the benefits of the Games, including a modern airport and new highways.

“A lot of work took place because of the Olympics,” says Spanos, who set up hurdles during the Olympics and retrieved the javelin after the athletes threw it.

Greek officials have been working on securing contracts for the 22 Olympic venues. The sailing center is slated to become a 1,000-yacht marina. The canoe and kayak center will likely become a water park. Part of a press center at the Olympic complex could hold offices for the health ministry, another part will likely become an Olympic museum. Hundreds of Greeks have already moved into apartments in the Olympic Village, which has been converted into housing for low-income residents.

Many venues have been used for shows, concerts and conventions, such as the Olympic Stadium’s indoor arena hosting Eurovision in May, Europe’s largest song contest.

“Suddenly, things we could not have in Greece became possible,” says Christos Hadjiemmanuil, president of Hellenic Olympic Properties, which is charged with post-Olympic venue utilization.

But Hadjiemmanuil is quick to acknowledge that Greece did not plan well what to do with the venues after the Olympics when it built the infrastructure.

Many of the sites are too big considering the country’s relatively small size and the fact that Olympics are primarily a TV event, he says. Finding use for the baseball, softball and hockey facilities is the biggest challenge as those sports are not popular in Greece, he says. The softball field may need to be demolished, he says.

While some Greek officials acknowledge the country made a mistake by building too many permanent structures, they stress that they cannot place a price tag on Greece’s new and improved image.

Before the Olympics, Greece was perceived mostly as a beautiful and hospitable country, says Panos Livadas, the general secretary of information. After the Olympics, people also started to think of Greece and its people as reliable, secure and good to do business with, he says.

Even the biggest skeptics were impressed, often using the word “wonder” to describe how Greece pulled off the last-minute preparations for the Olympics, Livadas says. The country is now using that word in many marketing materials, such as “Wonderful Greece” to describe its beauty and “Wonder Market” to portray it as a business hub.

“We don’t now promote Greece as a small interesting country of 11 million consumers, but as a center for a huge regional market,” says Stylianidis, from the foreign affairs office.

Tourism was expected to increase 10 percent this year in a country that has long prided itself on averaging more than one tourist per each of its 11 million residents, says Dimitrios Lampadarios, president of the Greek National Tourism Organization. The biggest increase – 30 percent – was expected from Americans and Canadians, he says. The airline industry quickly responded to this growing demand, with Delta recently adding a second daily direct flight from Atlanta to Athens.

Since the Olympics, Greece has not had to work on raising awareness but has instead focused on more targeted campaigns, such as showing Americans Greece’s 9,000-mile coastline with 3,000 islands because of their love for cruising, Lampadarios says.

In June, buses regularly dropped tourists off near the Acropolis and a steady stream of people climbed up the hill to see the Parthenon, the powerful symbol of Western civilization. Plaka’s charming outdoor cafes and restaurants were busy late into the evening with tourists and Greeks, who often don’t eat dinner until 10 in the evening. Shopkeepers were selling everything from olive oil soap to hand-made leather sandals.

The price of Olympic merchandise was already slashed in half, but the Greeks hope the Games will continue to benefit the country that gave birth to the event.

“The Olympics were a wonderful opportunity for Greece because Greece has changed,” as a result, says Livadas, the general secretary of information. “But we had the whole world here to watch the change.”