The view of the Acropolis from the Old Olympic Stadium
In the summer of 2004 all eyes were on Athens Greece as the city hosted the Summer Olympics
For two weeks Americans and Iranians, Greeks and Turks, Arabs and Israelis, British
and French, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Carnivores and Vegetarians put their political, religious,
ethical and ethnic differences aside and competed on the Athletic fields, courts and waters of Athens and the surrounding
hills and mountains.
But anyone familiar with Greece knows that this is how things are here. To the outside observer it did appear that things were a mess and disorganization and chaos were threatening these Olympics. The person who knows Greece and the Greeks is aware that this is just the madness of their method. What appears to be a mess is simply the gathering of opposing forces which at the last moment will turn all their efforts in the same direction and in a miraculous way pull it off. Of course doing everything at the last minute makes things a lot more expensive. When construction is delayed the construction companies can charge whatever they want to a government desperate to show the world that it can handle the responsibilities of hosting the Olympics, and the government will pay whatever is necessary. But in the end, by August of 2004 the world was sitting in front of their TVs watching images of athletes and ancient sites and nobody cared how we got here. Greece finished all the giant transportation projects that were essential to the Olympics and the pundits claimed would be impossible to complete. New highways diverting traffic from central Athens, a new light rail system to the coastal suburbs, beaches and venues, a train to the airport, miles of new metro and a greenification of Athens which includes turning miles and miles of busy streets into pedestrian walkways and parks. The venues themselves which were so far behind schedule were finished. The construction workers left and were replaced by gardeners, landscapers, trees, plants and grass and it is not only the Athenians who believe that Greece's miracle championship run in EURO 2004 Football was not the only miracle of the summer. Suddenly people who were sitting on the fence decided to come and lucky for them, the negative press and the ineptitude of those whose job it was to promote the Olympics meant that there were rooms for them if they could find a way to get here. Plenty of tickets too. And there was a new beautiful Athens waiting for them. For those who did not come, the games were of course televised. But many of those who decided to stay home and watch it on TV felt like they missed out on something special.
How did we get here though? We all know that the Olympic games began in ancient Olympia and
that warring city-states put down their weapons to compete in sports. The first Olympics were held in 776 BC and
began and ended with a foot-race won by Korivos from Elia for those who keep stats. They were then held every 4
years until the 293rd Olympiad in 393 AD and then they were abolished by the Romans. In those days winners were
not showered with endorsement contracts or even gold medals. The winners were given a sacred branch of a wild olive
trees and praised by the poets. There were not only Athletic contests but poets, artists, historians and orators
exhibited their skills too. Ancient Olympia is one of the most widely visited archaeological sites visited today.
In an effort that is now being mirrored in modern Athens, the 1896 Olympics in the two week period before the games attempted to repair, replace and renovate buildings, streets and squares that had been neglected for years. Sixty thousand people from all over the world converged on the city on Easter Sunday, March 24th. The first ceremony was the unveiling of the state to Averoff. The following day King George I officially launched the modern Olympics in the Panathenaikon stadium on the 75th Anniversary of Greek Independence. The Philharmonic Orchestra played the National Anthem and the Olympic Hymn, written by the poet Costis Palamas and set to music by the well-known composer Spyros Samaras.
The most popular event in Greece was the Marathon which is the course run by the Athenian soldier from the battlefield of the same name to the center of the city where he announced the Athenians victory over the massive Persian army and then died on the spot. The entire population of the city lined the streets and were rewarded when local favorite Spyros Louis won the race. That evening the city was alive with light and music as the Athenians celebrated their victory in this race and in other events. The first winner of the modern Olympic games was an American student named John Connolly who paid his own way to Athens and won the triple-jump.
Thirteen countries competed in the 1896 Olympics and the gold medal count was:
The success of the first Olympics set off a passion for athleticism not only in Greece but all over Europe and an attempt was also made to include more of the arts by Pierre de Coubertin one of the visionaries and founders of the modern Olympics. The next Olympics were held in Paris in 1900, Saint Louis in 1904, London in 1908, Stockholm in 1912 and the list goes on to the present with the exception of 1916, 1940 and 1944 when the two world wars not only forced their cancellation but put in doubt whether they would be held again. A far cry from the days when wars were put on hold so the Athletes could compete in harmony. In 1972 the games in Munich were disrupted by terrorists who used the Olympics to bring attention to the plight of Palestine by holding hostage and killing members of the Israeli Olympic team, a plan which backfired since few people remember who the terrorists were and what they wanted, only that innocent people were murdered. More people remember the security guard who was mistakenly blamed for the bomb at the Atlanta Olympics then who planted it and why which serves to illustrate that the Olympics and the spirit of humanity tend to overshadow the attempts of extremists to use the games to bring attention to their own causes. Disrupting the Olympics has as much political force as streaking the Academy awards. Rather then bring attention to a cause it has the opposite affect as people watching sports tend to interpret things at their most basic and sometimes most sensible level. The "Anti-abortion Activist" becomes "that idiot who set the bomb off in Atlanta". The Palestinians in Munich became "the jerks who killed those Israeli athletes". The message is that if you can't compete in the world of athletics then stay home and cheer for those people who may in fact share your beliefs and have put them aside for two weeks to take part in something bigger. If you hate America then root against them in the Olympics.
It was generally assumed that Athens would host the 1996 Olympics. After all it was the 100th anniversary of the modern Olympics. Athens was so sure they would get them that a great fortune was spent on fireworks and televisions were installed on street corners so the Athenians could see the final tally of votes. But in a surprise come-from-behind victory by Atlanta, which was not even in the top three cities in the previous votes, Athens was upset. They shot off the fireworks anyway, because what else can you do with them. But Melina Mercouri put it all in perspective when she stated that Coca-Cola wins over the Acropolis. It is taken for granted that enormous amounts of money paved the way for Atlanta to host the centennial Olympics but in the opinion of one committee member it had as much to do with Athens attitude. The Athenians gave the committee the impression that it was their right alone to host these Olympics and if they did not get them in 96 they did not want them at all. While both points of view are probably simplifications one thing is clear. If Athens is not ready for the 2004 Olympics how could they have been ready for 1996? To their credit rather then take their marbles and go home, the Athenians pulled themselves together and worked harder at preparing for the vote on the 2004 Olympics and this time it paid off. This also gave them time to finish the infrastructure that would never have been impossible to complete by 1996, including the new airport, the new metro, the new roads and all the new venues which are either complete or in various stages of near-completion.
The city itself underwent the same sort of face lift it had in the two weeks preceding the 1896 Olympics only now they had plenty of time to do it right. Projects like the Archaeological park that were a gleam in King Otto's eye in the nineteenth century took shape as small streets and large avenues were closed to automobile traffic and paved with cobblestones and adorned with trees and plants. Athens became not just a showpiece for those who arrived with the Olympics but more importantly a much nicer place to live. The Olympics compelled the government to make the changes that should have been made years ago. They forced, and maybe even inspired, people who had done nothing for years to actually lend a helping hand. As time wound down and the date of the opening ceremonies got closer even those Greeks who were against the Olympics suddenly pitched in and took part in showing the world that indeed Athens could do it.
Maybe the most important lesson of the 1896 Olympics is that when the government decided the Olympics were too difficult a task and would not take responsibility for it's failure it was the people who rose up and made it a success. In the 2004 Olympics the Greek government had their role but in the end it was the Greek people who made the Olympics a success. This ws the biggest event for the city of Athens since they defeated the Persians at Marathon and as I expected, just like back then all Greeks rose to the occasion.
Did you know there have been Olympic Mascots for past Olympics and the search is on for Athens 2004. To see the Mascots of the past and my choices for Athens click here
Is it possible that all the bad press Greece has been getting is intentional? Maybe somebody unhappy about a deal they did or did not get? The idea is far-fetched but one taxi driver has a theory. Read about it
The amount of merchandising done for the Athens 2004 Olympics is astounding. Maybe I was not aware and there were thousands of items available in Atlanta and Sidney too, but it seems like anything you can put the Olympic logo on is sold in the Official Athens 2004 Olympic Shops in Athens. I went undercover to one of these shops and disguised as an Olympic fanatic, was able to photograph many of these items, which by contract are not allowed to be advertised. So for a sneak preview of what you will find to buy in Athens this summer see www.athensguide.com/shops/olympics
Everyone wanted those olive wreaths that the winners were
wearing. I suppose there is not much left of them now since they
really were wreaths from an olive tree and leaves tend to wither
and die. But Byzantino Jewelry came up with an original line of
of Olympic pieces which are actually based on the ancient victory wreaths.
The Ancient site of Olympia is one of the most visited places in Greece. See www.greecetravel.com/olympia
Planning to come to Greece sometime before
the next Olympics?
Athens Survival Guide is
a complete guide to the city: www.athensguide.com
in low-cost flights to Greece: www.greeceflights.com
For more information on the Olympic Games I suggest The Olympic Games: Past, Present and Future by Matina Psyhogeos. This is not just a history of the Olympics but a guide that will help you understand the site of ancient Olympia and it's importance in ancient times and now. If you are traveling with children I especially encourage you to buy it though adults will find it just as interesting.
The comments below state her purpose in the publishing of this book:
The objective of the book is not to dwell on specific events, chronicle the Summer or Winter Olympics, focus on individual athletic achievements, nor refer to distinct athletic achievements by Olympians (too numerous and too significant for just a mere reference). Its intent is:
retrospect the origin of the Games and contemplate their future.