Athens, Greece – I am starting the writing of this President’s Column from a small island in the Aegean Sea, an hour out of Athens, and am enjoying the magnificent villa home of Joe and Mina Valyraki. Joe has served in the Greek government for more than 25 years. He was the Minister of Sport when they signed the agreement to bring the Athens Olympiad 2004 to its original home in Greece. He then served twice as a Minister of the Interior – security is a specialty of his. His beautiful wife, Mina, was the Academy’s Sport Artist of the Year in 2002 (see picture above).
This is my first stop in a world sports tour to view Academy programs throughout the world. Currently, I am here as an observer of the Games. But this is far from my first visit to Athens as the Academy has had various projects in Greece in the past and several in the last eight years.
I feel like my travels are an ongoing “Odyssey” not unlike Homer’s tale of Odysseus after the Trojan War. Webster describes an odyssey as “a long wandering trek marked by many changes of fortune.”
My odyssey has been one of sport that has taken me to every Olympiad since Melbourne 1956, when I was a U.S. Marine Corps Officer and the All Service Coach. At that period of time, the majority of the athletes on the U.S. Track and Field Team were from the military because the draft was very much a part of life in America. Since then, during the past 50 years, I have had the privilege of visiting over 100 countries, and the Academy has developed sport programs in one form or another in more than half of them.
This has been an exciting Olympics in Greece. Each day, we have driven from Eretria on the island of Evia to take in a variety of Olympic events, e.g. water polo,
volleyball, and of course, track and field, the centerpiece of all Olympiads. (Incidentally, for anyone interested in what the original games were really all about, I recommend “The Naked Olympics” by Tony Perrottet).
I believe this to be the best Olympics I have seen in the last 48 years and probably the best in modern times. In many ways it was a miracle. I have been coming to Athens continuously over the last eight years, and I thought that Jacques Rogge, the President of the IOC, was correct when he almost took the Games away from the Greeks, fearing that they would not be ready. However, apparently if you tell the Greeks they can’t do something, they will go out and prove that they can indeed do it – and they did it in spades with these Games. I rate them A-plus – even better than the Seoul Olympics of 1988, which I thought was the best to date, except for the Korean language problem.
The Greeks made it all come together in the very end. I have never traveled so easily around Athens! Not long ago, it was nothing short of a nightmare just getting from Athens to their beautiful new airport. The underground trains were not useable except for small segments within the city, and many ring roads led to nowhere. But by magic, it all hooked up with the kind of “discipline” you usually only find in Asian cultures like Japan.
The ring roads around Athens cleared the gridlock, a trademark of the city. These roads were built with private money, which will be repaid through tolls in the coming years. This is a classic example of the private sector working with the government to achieve a common goal. Incidentally, all of these new roads lead from a beautifully built Olympic village, designed like a city – complete with shops, hospitals and all the normal city services; certainly one of the biggest and best ever built. The roads through the stadiums have a lane marked off with orange paint for Olympic vehicles only, and any violation of that policy carries a stiff $157 fine. A real coup by the Olympic committee is that, if you have an Olympic ticket, you can get on all public transport free of charge.
The Olympic complex, particularly the main stadium, is spectacular and architecturally brilliant, displaying the artistic hand of the Spanish architect, Santiago Clatrava. The stadium grounds are immaculate. They are set off by reflecting pools and a Spanish art piece, called the “WAVING WALL,” 100 meters long, that chimes throughout the night and serves as the backdrop for endless projected Olympic competitions, like a giant outdoor movie theater.
The grounds surrounding the sport complex are impeccable. At midnight, after a track and field event, I watched as 72,000 spectators (basically Greeks) carried their trash and bottles (from vendors like McDonald’s and Coca Cola – the major sponsors of the Games) and put them into the bins provided outside the stadium. Where else have you seen this?
A diverse group of some 65,000 volunteers, including the disabled in wheelchairs, was organized to help everyone and anyone attending the Games. It was one of the best-trained and most helpful “Corps of Volunteers” I have ever seen at a Games. Originally, the goal was for 45,000 volunteers but the foreign volunteers increased the total to some 65,000. All were dressed in an attractive common uniform, including some 15,000 “extras.” As spectators left the stadium and the Olympic grounds, dozens of well-groomed and cordial ladies called out from judges chairs “good night,” “goodbye,” “sweet dreams,” “travel safely” and other such hospitable farewells.
Before I leave the topic of the Olympic complex and the grounds, I would like to congratulate the Greeks on how they laid out and installed their shopping centers – again, some of the best that I have seen. Major sponsors paid millions to use the Olympic Rings and the remarkable thing was that there was no “ambush marketing.” The prices were standardized for all the Olympic clothing and mementos. They were the same whether they were sold on the Olympic grounds, in the city of Athens, or indeed on the outer islands. I particularly was aware of this as I shopped for family, staff and friends. Even more important, bottled water, for instance, was cheaper on the Olympic grounds than in the normal grocery store.
Unfortunately, this was a total reverse of what happened in Atlanta in 1996, where vendors were selling the same items at different prices five feet from each other down every side street. I rated the Atlanta Olympics as a C-minus, at best, as so did the rest of the world, I believe.
Throughout the streets of Athens there were continuous athletic and cultural programs late into the night for weeks, and there was a mass of well-behaved crowds. Again, this was not only throughout Athens but in the suburbs and on the outer islands, all well run without rowdy crowds.
What Athens did was rebuild itself for years to come. I call this the “Barcelona Model.” I watched Barcelona during the early 90’s and certainly during the Games, as it built new roads, airports, hotels, streets and apartments; while eliminating slums and the factory district, and recapturing the polluted Mediterranean, much like Sydney rebuilt itself in 2000. The only city that was not able to take the great opportunity of the Olympics to rebuild its inner structure was Atlanta. In fact, they ended up as probably the only Olympic city that lost their Olympic stadium, which in this case is now Turner’s Field for the Atlanta Braves baseball team.
I thought that Athens not only did a remarkable job of rebuilding itself but it did so without destroying its great antiquities, such as the Acropolis. (I, for one, hope the British give back the marble facings they took at the time of the Turkish occupation.)
Incidentally, I was in Barcelona earlier this year for Olympic meetings with the IOC Culture and Olympic Education Commission, on which I am privileged to serve. The reconstruction and the development of Barcelona that was done for the 1992 Olympic Games has not stopped. I hope that will be true with Athens.
Lastly, the greatest miracle of the Olympiad was the security. Guards and special electronic equipment were everywhere at an estimated cost of $1.6 billion. Security was everywhere, from helicopters above to cameras sliding on cable over every stadium, with checkpoints throughout the Olympic sites. It was subtle but with a touch of class. Such a touch of class is needed with our TSA people managing airport security throughout the USA.
The greatest problem in this Olympiad was drugs, as the Greeks lost some of their best sprinters at the beginning of the Games. Performance enhancing drugs could destroy the Games, along with violence and corruption.
There is no question that these were the best Games ever. It didn’t come cheap! The estimated cost was $12 billion – the most costly Games ever and a debt the Greek people will pay for generations. But from my perspective, the Greeks are prepared to do so.
In the Closing Ceremonies, Gianna Angelopaulos-Daskalaki, President of the Athens 2004 Organizing Committee, told of the achievements of the Greek people in bringing these Games together, which did in fact conclude once again with one of the most spectacular closing ceremonies that the world has ever seen. The opening ceremonies were equally spectacular. Rogge said at the end of the Games: “The Greek people have won!” and indeed they had!
Most importantly for us, after the Games, the Academy will have ongoing sport education programs in Greece with both the Greek Olympic Committee and some of the country’s better colleges and universities via distance learning.
I left Greece the following day for Cyprus, a Greek-speaking island nation some 45 minutes south of Greece by air. As we traveled to the airport everyone forgot the orange line on the highway, and we were back to driving like the Greek people of old. Some things will never change.