Cracks in the Acropolis
by Jeff Henderson
published in

"Where's your delegate?" a man in dark sunglasses barked as his outstretched arm halted my progress.

"My what?" I inquired.

"Your delegate," he clarified. "A member of your delegation has to be present to escort you forward."

Welcome to the world of Olympic security in the modern era. I was attempting to cross the finish line chute - a distance of some three meters - about half an hour before the Athens 2004 triathlon test event got underway. As far as I knew I had no delegate - is that something like a groupie? - but I took my place next to three other bewildered photographers and waited for who knows what.

The Athens Organizing Committee - or ATHOC among friends - has been under fire virtually since the day they were awarded next summer's Games. Schedule slips, inadequate infrastructure, lack of funds, and a host of other headaches have led the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to place ATHOC under a microscope for fear of Olympic disaster.

A few minutes later my delegate presumably appeared because we were given the "all clear" to traverse the field of play. My fellow inmates and I followed Mr. Delegate to another checkpoint and were given the go-ahead to begin shooting. "At what?" we all asked at once, as we were still some 100 meters from anything remotely interesting. "Not my problem," came the heartfelt reply.

Triathlon was one of the gems of the Sydney Games - the opening event, a new pearl in the necklace of the modern Olympics. The first test event for triathlon in Athens, held on October 25th, would provide a necessary litmus for the IOC to gauge just how prepared ATHOC had become. Less than 300 days out, all acronyms involved hoped for something positive.

I was in town to see for myself, to kick the tires as best I could without denting anything. The first step had been securing accreditation, but that laborious process could be subject for a story unto itself and I vowed to forgive and forget as I stepped off the plane. In the spirit of the Games, I was ready to give Athens a fair chance to prove herself.

As the current subway does not reach to the airport, I took my place in a rather lengthy line waiting for the "express" bus to downtown. Though a big queue is never cause for celebration, I admit to feeling a bit proud of my fellow travelers and their decision to ride public transport in lieu of polluting taxis. Good for you, Athens, you green city!

The bus ride, once I managed to wedge myself inside (city motto: "why wait when you can budge"), offered a good first glance at the city, suburbs first. Athens has become, as delicately as I can put it, an absolute mess. Streets are torn up, buildings torn apart, train tracks uprooted, metal fencing strewn about. The city is a gigantic, sprawling, heaving, lurching construction project, and the men carrying it out are immersed in a seemingly Sisyphean task.

I gazed out the bus window at an unbroken string of rubble next to the busy road. Pot-bellied men hurled rock and dirt over their shoulders as massive bulldozers pushed things around. Along one stretch the monotonous scene was broken by two men hunched over a small pit, gingerly poking with small instruments while a woman took careful notes from a folding chair next to them. How many projects had been delayed, and would be further delayed, by archeological relics unearthed in the path of the earthmovers? A new city was hastily being erected on top of, in the middle of, and around the Athens of antiquity.

I disembarked in the very heart of downtown and was overcome by the immediate stench. To my left a pile of garbage lay ten feet high, and a small collection of cats and dogs were digging around like kids after the piqata bursts. At the corner another pile rose before me, and half a block on, yet another. What's going on here? I wondered. The green revolution had not made it past the airport.

The next morning I bought myself a local newspaper and everything made sense all at once. The city trash collectors had been on strike for ten days, and what lay before me was the refuse generated by Athens' three million residents. Rotting, stinking, seeping into the water drains and spilling into the streets. City officials refused to sit down and talk over what they termed "unrealistic demands" in light of the already tight purse strings the Olympic effort had caused. No talks, no trash collection, and the spraying of disinfectant in the morning by the health department.

I read further and learned that the airport buses were full because the taxi drivers were also on strike. Their issue was not better pay, but a new city ordinance requiring them to install meters in their cabs in time for the Games. Striking academic staff have kept Greek universities closed for the past six weeks; hospital doctors in Athens and Piraeus are staging rolling 48-hour strikes; and the police unions are threatening to escalate protest campaigns. What happens if they hold an Olympics with no doctors, police, or - gasp - taxicabs?

I pondered all of this the next morning as I waited to pass through the metal detector on my way to the press center. The test event was cause for a complete mobilization of all the police and security forces the Big Show would require next August, to nip in the bud someone wandering into Olympic Village and lobbing around some Malatov cocktails, for example. And no airport in the world can compete with their efforts: I had a full backpack with me, complete with everything I would need for the next three days, and every item was painstakingly removed and inspected. The potential for embarrassment here was staggering.

My pack happened to contain a small paper bag of powdered soy milk, wrapped tightly in a bandana to prevent spills. It was intended for breakfast, to compliment the granola I had also packed. Imagine a security guard coming across a brick of white powder and not knowing enough English to comprehend "soy milk." The suspect parcel was passed around, sniffed, fondled, and otherwise spindled until deemed non-volatile. I was in.

Later in the day I returned to my local paper and came across an article about a school to the north that was embroiled in controversy about whether to allow their brightest pupil to carry the Greek flag during Ohi Day, the annual Greek celebration of the country's refusal to submit to Mussolini's demands of 1940 which brought Greece into WW II. The big problem was that the student, Odhise Qena, is Albanian, though he has lived in Greece for six years with his migrant family. Student protests backed by the parents' association against his involvement led to Qena backing out of the privilege and thus avoiding potential confrontation.

This didn't strike me as particularly Olympic-spirited, though this was probably not on the protesters' minds as they lashed out at young Odhise. It would be naive to believe every country hosting an Olympiad is a shining star of egalitarianism; all the same it would be nice to see a minimum level of acceptance within the country a few months before waves of foreigners pour over the border. But to expect any country to bury a history of ethnic tension overnight is perhaps asking a bit too much.

Wandering around downtown Athens one evening, an old man approached me and said, "You're not from here. Australian?"

I told him American and was relieved to see a smile; you never know these days. I complimented him on a fine city and asked about the construction projects in light of a rapidly-approaching Olympic Games.

"It's not much to look at now," he replied, "but wait until next summer. The whole city will be new and beautiful. Greeks are very proud of the chance to hold the Olympics here.

"But," he went on, "we are worried too. Because if these projects don't finish in time, we know they will never be finished. I hope they all meet their deadlines."

The Olympics of our times have become a giant traveling circus, the Olympic ideal to display for the world what an extraordinarily clean, efficient, vibrant city you have. But real cities have real problems, and beneath the thin new coat of shiny paint Athens has undervalued civil servants, a flailing economy, and ugly pockets of prejudice. The citizens hope for a successful Olympics, but what does success mean? Should next August go off without a hitch, with all lines memorized and cues hit, will Athens find herself sustainable once the spotlight dims and the critics disperse for home? I left Athens impressed with the politeness, professionalism, and pride of her people, but concerned that she is doomed to a Narcissean fate of gazing too long at beauty in the present. The birthplace of the Olympic dream is staggering beneath the weight of Olympic reality.