THE 2004 Athens Olympics seem, finally, to be back on track. Just when it appeared that the Greeks, who invented the ancient Games, might find a 21st century Olympiad beyond them, the enterprise has been rescued by a remarkably tough, cigar-smoking woman.
Five months ago, Gianna Angelopoulos 47, the president of the Athens Organising Committee, decided she had had enough. So she sat down and wrote a letter to the Greek Prime Minister, saying she was going to resign.
The threat worked so well that last month, for the first time, a co-ordination commission visit from the International Olympic Committee ended with genuine optimism that the 2004 Games were back in business.
When I met Angelopoulus in her Athens office this week she told me how close she came to resigning. “Yes, when I was afraid that we could not perform, the country could not perform. I was obliged to think if I can go on without allies,” she said.
Angelopoulos never gives up on anything easily. Married to a wealthy businessman, Thedore Angelopoulos, she is inspired by how Margaret Thatcher coped with difficulties.
“I always remember this woman who had been through so many difficult decisions for her country saying, `I never give up’. That is my answer to difficulties, I never give up.”
In 1997 when she led the Greek bid, Rome was the odds-on favourite but Angelopoulos led Athens to victory. Then after a bitter poltical battle she was ousted and came to London. Eighteen months ago with the IOC in a state of despair about the preparations Juan Antonio Samaranch, then the organisation’s president, forced the Greek prime minister to bring her back.
Angelopoulos agonised before she accepted and only did so after some advice she received from her daughter who was then 17 and studying in London.
“The kids knew if I accepted this presidential position I should have to leave them. They were alone at the time. My daughter told me: `Mama, nobody will give you any excuses if you will not help them now. Because you love this cause so much, you tried so hard, you sacrificed part of your personal life and we all know that. But you will have no excuses now if you do not go.’ ”
Now she exudes an air of a woman who sees this as a moment of destiny. “It was good for the Games that I came back. For me it was a kind of must. I have done what I have done for my country. That is why I refer to my country as the people of Greece because I believe such a small country has to create a Goliath performance with David specifications.”
She admits that at the time of her threatened resignation “she was convinced over some factors that I must stay.”
When pressed on what factors these were, she said:”I will tell you after the Games.”
Then, puffing on her cigar, she explained: “We believe they will be a successful, unique Games which will remind the world of the history of the Games, the ability of bringing the people together, ability of upgrading a country, ability for the rest of the world to know Greece.”
This sense of a Greek destiny weighs heavily on her and she almost assumes the status of a head of state as she describes her walkabouts in Greece these days.
“I walk outside in Athens, in villages, small islands and people stop me and say ‘Gianna, discuss the issues’. They feel the Games are their own affair, not the IOC’s. They want it to be successful and they say ‘Can we help?’ ”
And Angelopoulos readily admits that in getting Athens ready for the Games and making up what Craig Reedie, the chairman of the British Olympic Association and a member of the IOC co-ordination commission, called three-and-a-half wasted years, she has had to change the highly individualistic Greek character.
“Yes, I am remoulding the Greek character. The country had to participate in a team effort and having the label of individualists, you understand how this is important. You have to work very hard as a team, perform as a team. I prefer to have hard-working people rather than smart people.”
Angelopoulos readily admits that in dealing with her fellow Greeks her years abroad, particularly in London, helped.
“It helped me measure our own potential as a country, having more realistic ideals of what we are,” she said. “At Harvard University I organised a seminar called `The Greek paradox: Promise versus performance’ “.
So could she advise Wembley where there is an even more glaring British paradox?
Angelopoulos laughed and said: “Wembley is an on-going discussion. Time flies and I have seen it coming up again and again.
“For a country sometimes when it take a decision it starts a programme from which a lot of things develop that are not scheduled. But it is necessary to take decisions and have a goal.”
© Mihir Bose