The Olympics Return to Their Birthplace
THE spade and the shovel of archaeologists ushered in the rebirth of the Olympic Games in modern times. Findings in ancient Olympia, Greece, moved French Baron Pierre de Coubertin to push for the revival of the games. As a result, the first modern Olympics were held in Athens in 1896.
In the years just prior to 2004, bulldozers and jackhammers paved the way for the games to return to their birthplace. The capital of Greece looked like a spreading construction site, as it was being modernized in preparation for the Olympics.
The XXVIII Olympiad, as the 2004 Olympic Games are officially called, is scheduled to take place in Athens from August 13 to 29. Some 10,000 athletes, from a record 201 countries, will compete in 28 sports. Sporting events will be held at 38 venues and will culminate in more than 300 medal ceremonies. About 21,500 members of the media will be outnumbered by some 55,000 hardworking security personnel.
A Hurdle Race
Athens had for a long time set its sights on luring the Olympic Games back to their birthplace. Marking the centennial of the modern games, the year 1996 seemed to be the most fitting for the return of the Olympics to the country of their birth.
However, Athens’ bid for the 1996 Games was unsuccessful. The city was said to lack the necessary infrastructure needed for the two very demanding weeks of the games.
That rejection jolted Greece and its capital into action. Athens vowed to correct the situation. Armed with good intentions and a few solid plans, in 1997 the city bid again, for the 2004 Olympic Games. This time it won.
Athens braced itself for a transformation. The desire to host the games touched off a wave of unprecedented activity and development. Everywhere, machines broke ground to improve the infrastructure and build roads and venues for the games. Even during boiling-hot weekends in the middle of summer, one could see excavators, cranes, and people hard at work everywhere.
In March 2001 the first aircraft landed at the new international airport of Athens, one that has achieved top world ranking in its category. Also, a total of 75 miles [120 km] of new roads were planned, and 55 miles [90 km] of existing thoroughfares were slated to be upgraded. Some 40 overpasses were included in the new road system to ease traffic. New metro lines were created, with provisions for the addition of 15 miles [24 km] of tram lines. A 20-mile [32 km] suburban railway dotted with modern train stations was designed to divert traffic and cut atmospheric pollution.
In short, Athens attempted in a few years to transform itself into a new city, with more pockets of greenery, a cleaner environment, and a new transportation system. Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), noted: “People who knew Athens before the Games and will see Athens after the Games will not recognize the city.”
A Marathon of Preparations
As the date of the opening ceremony of the Olympics approached, the pace picked up. IOC President Rogge likened the progress of construction and preparation to syrtaki, Greece’s traditional dance. Half jokingly, he said: “I would describe it as a piece of music—like the syrtaki. It starts very slowly, it accelerates all the time, and by the end, you can’t follow the pace.”
True to that assessment, the Olympic Village—“the backbone of the entire Olympics preparation effort”—sprang out of nowhere in one of the northern suburbs of Athens. This project, which will host some 16,000 athletes and team officials during the Olympic Games, is the largest housing project ever undertaken in Greece. After the games it will become home to about 10,000 city residents.
The connection between ancient history and the legacy of the modern games has not been lost on the organizers of the Olympics. Some ceremonies will take place in ancient Olympia. Other major archaeological sites will be showcased during parallel cultural Olympic events. A new rowing center was built near the site of the renowned battle of Marathon. And the marathon runners can claim that they have run the original course. The organizers of the games have chosen the exact route used by the Athenian soldier who in 490 B.C.E. ran the 26 miles [42 km] from Marathon to Athens to announce the defeat of the Persians.
And the Gold Goes to . . .
When the fireworks go off at the opening ceremony of the games, the 75,000-seat Olympic Stadium will be the center of attraction. For many, this renovated stadium is the “jewel of the crown” of the Athens Olympic facilities. What makes this stadium unique is its roof, conceived and designed by the famous Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava.
An engineering wonder, the roof is made of glass panels weighing a total of 16,000 tons and is designed to cover an area of 108,000 square feet [10,000 sq m]. It will rest on two colossal arcs, each with a span of 997 feet [304 m] and a height of 262 feet [80 m]—almost two thirds the size of Australia’s Sydney Harbour Bridge! The steel tubes making up the arcs weigh between 9,000 and 10,000 tons each and are “big enough to drive a bus through,” according to a construction expert. The total weight of the roof is expected to be two times that of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
Why is such a giant roof needed? Think of the heat produced by the scorching August sun in Athens! The glass panels have a special coating that reflects 60 percent of the sunlight. There are other reasons too. The design of the roof was envisioned as the landmark of the games. As former Greek culture minister Evangelos Venizelos put it, “it is the big architectural landmark and the symbol of the Athens Olympic games.”
After the closing ceremony, such landmarks will provide reminders of the hard work required to host such a monumental event. Athenians hope that all the infrastructure prepared for the Olympics will help improve the quality of life in their city. And as always, they will continue taking their challenges in stride—just as they do the syrtaki.
[Box on page 15]
The organizers of the Olympics love to stress the ideals associated with the games—“noble competition, sport, peace, culture, and education.” The other side of the coin, however, includes politics, nationalism, commerce, and corruption.
Traditionally, the Olympics have generated high television ratings and lucrative advertising packages, making the sponsorship of the games a tremendous marketing tool. “The Olympics is now big business,” said Australian researcher Murray Phillips, “and many decisions are made for strategic commercial reasons.”
Others decry the flagrant nationalism manifested at the games. Efforts are being made to introduce an Olympic truce, a cessation of hostilities and war during the games. However, beyond its symbolic meaning, such a measure will not bring results unless the reasons for conflict are eliminated. “The Games are an arena for power politics,” observed science professor Brian Martin. He added: “At the Olympics, competition between athletes is turned into competition between states. Athletes can’t participate if their country doesn’t. Victories by individuals and teams are treated as national victories, symbolised by flags and anthems . . . [The Olympics] have simply provided another arena for the continuation of violence between individuals in events and between states in the struggle for power and status. . . . The Olympic movement is powerless to turn its original goal of promoting peace into reality.”
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Athens Olympic sports complex
Medal design for 2004
Aerial photo: AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis; medal design: © ATHOC
[Pictures on page 16]
Athens international airport
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Olympic Village under construction
Agios Kosmas Sailing Centre
© ATHOC/Photo: K. Vergas
[Picture on page 16, 17]
Olympic Stadium roof under construction
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A miniature model of the completed roof
[Picture Credit Line on page 14]