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I HAVE rarely seen a city transform itself quite so dramatically as Athens has in the last month. Then, Athens was still work in progress; now, with three days to go until the opening ceremony, it is an Olympic city.

Then, when I interviewed Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, president of the Athens 2004 organising committee, she made much of the fact that there was work to be done and she was visiting all the sites to cheer the troops up and make sure they finished on time.

Athens airport looked no different at that point than on the many occasions I had seen it in the last two years, with no sign yet of the bunting and posters that mark airports of cities staging great events.

I flew in on Saturday and felt I had arrived at a totally new airport. As I got off the plane, I stepped on to painted impressions of feet next to signs saying: “Welcome to the Olympic Family.” Receiving accreditation for the Games took barely two minutes and after that for every minute of the way I had a volunteer to guide me – one fetching a trolley, another showing me the way out of the airport, a third explaining the transport arrangements.

Volunteers played a huge part in the success of Sydney; they could do even more for Athens. Stories of remarkable voluntary action already abound. One IOC member told me in some awe that his driver was an Athens lawyer who, with the courts shut for August, had decided to spend the next three weeks at the wheel of an Olympic car.

There is also the fact that Athens compares favourably in its preparedness with two other cities that recently staged major sporting events. At the same stage in Salt Lake City two years ago it was hard to know the Winter Olympics were going to be held there. And in Lisbon, two months ago, the Euro 2004 volunteers at the airport seemed surprised I should want their help.

On the way to my hotel, along roads festooned with posters saying “Welcome Home” – a reference to the return of the Games to the land of their birth – my driver pointed with pride to the blue lanes marked for use by the Olympic “family”, which should do much to avoid congestion during the Games. Even outside the lanes, the traffic seemed lighter. And with a suburban train reaching the airport and ring roads near the port of Piraeus complete, Athens may not be the traffic nightmare everyone feared.

It may also help that 40 per cent of Athenians are believed to have left the city. One veteran of many Olympics told me: “Athens reminds me a bit of Los Angeles in 1984. Then, residents of Los Angeles left the city during the Olympics and the impossible traffic became much better.”

Could this explain why ticket sales are still slow? As of yesterday, tickets for all events – even for the opening ceremony – were still available. Athenians have a reputation for buying at the last minute but I have yet to see the fervour that marks Wimbledon tennis.

For the past three days I have gone past the old stadium where, in 1896, the modern Games began and where the Marathon will finish this year. Every day I have seen just a small knot of spectators at the box office, no more than the crowd that may gather for a matinee show at a West End theatre ticket booth.

Yet if Athenians have yet to vote with their wallet for the Games, they can feast their eyes on a city that now looks dramatically different. Athens is a city where you cannot escape history, yet for all its ancient heritage, such as the Acropolis, it has also been one of Europe’s most visually polluted cities, disfigured with billboards, often illegal. Suddenly they have gone.

Syntagma Square, opposite the Parliament building, now has no advertisements. In many other locations, billboards that used to carry commercial posters have either been covered up with Olympic promotional material or painted white. The only advertisements to be seen are the ones relating to the Olympics and their chosen sponsors.

Some things in Athens will not change. So my very unscientific survey of taxi drivers shows that they are always likely to fleece visitors, and that asking people for directions will result in many conversations of nods and smiles but with no clear indication of how to get to your destination.

Yesterday afternoon, workmen were still at work on the Olympic stadium, busy on the landscaping with trees and flowers. This being Greece you can be sure that come Friday evening, when the limousine carrying the IOC president, Jacque Rogge, drives up, the workmen will have gone – and the stadium will look a picture.

© Mihir Bose

      

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