Countdown to the Athens Olympics
by Athens Mayor Dora Bakoyannis
Western Policy Center
June 7, 2004
Washington, D.C., St. Regis Hotel
Ladies and gentlemen,
Dear members of the press,
I will only make a brief introductory statement because, with the Athens Olympic Games just 10 weeks away, I am sure you are all anxious to raise questions on various pressing issues, issues such as the final preparations for the sports venues and related facilities, security, and the cost of staging the largest organized event in the world by the smallest-ever country in modern times.
However, in addition to answering your questions, as Mayor of Athens I would like to address the issue of recent developments in the Greek capital, and particularly the major changes that are taking place with the aim of making the city more attractive, user-friendly, effective, functional, and even more entertaining for its inhabitants and visitors.
And all this, not only during but also after the Games.
The Olympic Games will come and go, but the City of Athens will remain, just as it has remained for 3,000 years, a fact which has earned it the twin titles of "Europe's most ancient city" and of the "historic capital of Europe."
Therefore, our City administration is interested not only in helping stage successful Olympic Games, but, on the day after, in the so-called post-Olympics period, in the legacy of the Games and the way the city develops in the decades ahead.
As you all know, Greece in general, and Athens in particular, has a number of unique historic and cultural advantages in staging the Olympics. After all, the Games originated in Greece nearly 2,800 years ago and were then revived again in Athens in 1896.
As a result, visitors to Greece can still see the original ancient stadium at Ancient Olympia, where the Olympics were first organized in 776 B.C.
One event at this year's Games, the men and women's shot put, will actually be staged in this awe-inspiring setting.
Similarly, other events at the Athens Olympics will take place in or around locations which have enormous symbolic value for the development of Western civilization. I am referring, for example, to the monuments atop the 2,500-year-old Acropolis Hill, around the base of which the Olympic cycling race will take place.
Similarly, I am referring to the 2nd-century B.C. Panathenian Stadium, which was fully restored in marble for the revival of the Modern Games in 1896, where the archery events and the dramatic finish to the Marathon race will take place.
Thirdly, I am referring to the historic Marathon race itself, which will be contested over the original 26-mile course that was first run in 490 B.C. after the Battle of Marathon, a battle that saved Athenian democracy and civilization and, subsequently, that of the Western world.
Speaking of a Marathon struggle, and despite the considerable and often unfair criticism we have received from sections of the international media, I am here today to honestly argue that Greece has already broken several Olympic records and should, therefore, be awarded several gold medals, even before the start of the Games!
1) Greece is the smallest country ever in modern times to stage the Olympic Games, and it is staging the largest-ever Games.
2) We will host a record number of 202 countries, 11,000 athletes, and 21,000 journalists and technical assistants, in all these cases the numbers surpassing those of Sydney and Atlanta. We are often compared to Finland, another small country that hosted the Games in 1952. But remember that those Games hosted only 64 countries and 2,500 athletes, one quarter of today's figures in Athens.
3) These are the most costly Games ever, the budget coming to an estimated $8.5 billion when you add the cost of the long-term infrastructure projects that were put in place.
4) On security, we are spending $1.2 billion, four times as much as at Sydney and over five times more than Atlanta spent in 1996. We are deploying 70,000 police and military security personnel, again four times more than at Sydney.
5) We have a record number of volunteers, from Greece and from around the world, though we were criticized originally for not having adequate volunteer interest or international support. Well, the volunteer applications reached the figure of 160,000, as compared to 75,000 who volunteered in Sydney and 78,000 in Atlanta.
Therefore, ladies and gentlemen,
In this particular Marathon race of preparations, Greece has already broken some of the biggest Olympic records.
And we hope we will break many more in the Games that will take place in two months.
The text distributed to you today, along with other useful media material, outlines the preparations our capital has made so far, and the details that remain to be finalized. I am sure you will find it both valuable and surprisingly objective, for it not only lists major programs already completed, but also the delays and the compromises that had to be made, compared to some of the initial plans.
Ladies and gentlemen,
As a practical politician, I know only too well the difference between a vision and the realities of concrete policies. We are certainly not perfect, but we are confident that we have done a great job, confident that we will surprise the world and stage successful and safe Olympic Games.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Thank you for being here today.
The City of Athens looks forward to hosting you, not only as journalists during the Games, but as guests in the years to come. And I believe you will witness a transformation that has turned Athens once again into one of the world's most attractive destinations, ideally located between Western and Eastern Europe and the Southern Mediterranean.
And now, I will gladly answer your questions.
Summary of Questions and Answers:
How many of the Olympic venues still need to be completed?
Ninety percent of the venues were ready a long time ago. Test events have already been conducted at these venues, and they are working well. It was the decision of the Greek government to put a roof designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava over the main Olympic Stadium. It was not necessary to add the roof since the stadium had already been approved by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). But the government wanted to add it as a symbol of modern architecture. I am relieved that the roof is in place, and one of the big concerns is gone.
One part of the Marathon route had construction delays, but the construction is now on track and the route will be ready on time. We have no other significant concerns. There are no major infrastructure projects left to complete. The tram from the airport to the city center will be ready in July. Everything is on schedule, and the IOC is happy with the way things are going.
How many countries have joined the Olympic Truce?
The Olympic Truce has been signed by the United Nations, encompassing all the members of the organization, and by Pope John Paul II. The Truce has significant symbolism. It is important not to speak about the Olympics solely in terms of "tons of cement" and infrastructure. The games represent a significant peaceful event in the world, bringing together people from different religions and cultures, who all have the same values. The Olympics convey an important message during the difficult time the world is going through.
Can you comment on the security preparations for the Olympics, as well as the cultural events planned during the games?
Security is a significant issue that concerns the whole world. Athens was awarded the 2004 Olympics before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, took place, events that changed the atmosphere in which the games would be held. Greece had an obligation to take steps and spend the necessary funds to make certain that the games would be secure for both the Greeks and the international community. Therefore, the $1.2 billion Olympic security budget includes a security advisory group of seven countries, Australia, Britain, France, Germany, Israel, Spain, and the United States, which all have experience in security planning. These countries are sharing intelligence with Greece that is relevant to the Olympics. Greece and other EU nations are also sharing intelligence.
During the Olympics, NATO's AWACS early warning planes will monitor the airspace over Athens, while the alliance will also patrol the coastal areas near Athens. Some 75,000 well-trained people will be taking care of security. We believe that Greece has done all that could be done in the security arena. In today's world, Athens will be the most secure place to be in 2004.
It is necessary to balance the identity of the games with the need for strong security. The Olympics are not a military event, so the city of Athens is planning 136 cultural events, including musical and dance performances, as well as exhibitions, during the games. In addition, the Athens Festival, a series of cultural events that are held every summer, will go on as usual. This task will not be easy, since Greece is the first host of the Olympics to balance security requirements with pleasure, but I believe it will be a success.
How involved is the United States in security preparations for the games?
The United States is very involved in security plans, providing know-how, experience, and equipment. U.S. security specialists will be in Athens during the games. The Athens Olympics have not been threatened by any terrorist organization. Greece is relieved that the members of the November 17 terrorist organization are in jail today. This is great news for Greece since it has dealt with the local terrorism question.
Why did it take so long for the members of the November 17 terrorist organization to be brought to justice?
I cannot answer that question. We are still looking for answers. The organization was lucky for years. But then democracy was lucky, and, within two months, all the members were arrested. November 17 was a small, dedicated group that always targeted its victims. It never planned mass assassinations or mass terrorist acts.
How is the logistics planning for the Olympics being divided between you, as the mayor of Athens; Yianna Angelopoulou-Daskalakis, the president of the "Athens 2004" Organizing Committee; and the government?
When the new government of Prime Minister Karamanlis was installed in March, the prime minister took over the coordination of the Olympics, so it is a government effort. The government is also in charge of the big infrastructure projects. Ms. Angelopoulou-Daskalakis is handling the running of the games. I am responsible for the functioning of the city during the Olympics, which will require the participation of all Athenians.
Some 3,000 young women and men will be on the streets to provide information to those attending the Olympics, including the locations of the athletic events, the museums, and restaurants. Some 1,500 facades of buildings in the city have been redone. Gray facades have given way to more color.
Some 160,000 people have volunteered to assist with the Olympics. Many are from the United States, Australia, and other European Union countries.
How long will it take Greece to pay off its $8.5 billion budget for the Olympics?
Some of these expenses are being paid for through European Union funds because infrastructure projects have been needed for a long time. We are counting on the Athens Olympics being a success story, just as the Barcelona Olympics were, in terms of stimulating tourism and direct investment. The fact that Greece has organized the games will indicate that the country has well-educated human capital and the infrastructure to take on significant projects.
How will the Olympics benefit Greece from the tourism standpoint?
Athens has a completely new infrastructure. There is a new motorway around the city, one of the best in Europe. The airport and the subway system, which is like a museum, are also new. This completely different infrastructure was badly needed.
Athens, for the first time, is providing access for the disabled. Fifty-three miles of sidewalks have been adapted to accommodate the blind. In addition, 1,000 ramps have been added for wheelchairs. Hotels have been renovated to meet Olympic standards. These factors will constitute a legacy for the tourism sector. Greece hopes that those who come to Athens and see these improvements will become the best ambassadors for the city.
Other than having a new infrastructure, how will Athens be different after the games?
Hosting a successful Olympics will be important for Greece?s self-confidence and for indicating that modern Greece is a vibrant European country. It will also be important for the people who were criticized during the Olympic preparations to be able to say that they successfully met the challenge posed by the post-September 11 environment and the fact that Greece is the smallest country ever to organize an Olympics of this magnitude.
How do you evaluate the Greek Orthodox Church's relations with Muslims?
There has been a long relationship between Orthodox Christians in Greece and Muslims. They have lived together in the Balkans for more than 1,000 years, so there is a good understanding between them. The Greeks have lived a long time with a Muslim minority and with Muslim neighbors. Steps have been taken toward better relations with Turkey in recent years, including the May 6, 2004 meeting in Athens between Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Greece has openly announced that it supports Turkey's European vocation. Greece also has good relations with Arab countries.
What is the situation regarding the stray dogs in Athens?
When the Olympic planning began, there were many stray dogs in Athens. The city decided to embark on a concrete new policy. It made an agreement with animal welfare associations according to which the dogs would be temporarily taken off the street. Their health was examined, and they were given identification tags. The dogs, wearing red collars, have been returned to the neighborhoods where they were found. They have not been euthanized. We have also started an adoption program for some of the dogs.