In the summer of 2004 all eyes were on Athens Greece as the city hosted
the Summer Olympics. For those who were there or those who wish they had been these pages tell the story of that 2 week period that some say were the best in Athens ever.
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.
in Athens may not have been as spectacular as those held in Sydney, Australia. But those
who went to both say they may have been better. Greece is the smallest
country that has ever hosted the Olympics and even now there was concern that Athens wouldn't be able to pull it off.
The US media had been quick to give headline status to any negative stories
coming out of Athens. Construction was behind schedule. People in high places were arguing about issues that should have been settled months
before. Costs were escalating. Probably of most concern is that people were afraid that Athens would
not be able to provide
the security to make the games safe for the spectators and participants despite
spending a record 1.2 Billion Euros.
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.
Olympics were held in Athens in 1896 but preparation actually began in the early nineteenth century through the
writings of the celebrated scholar Panagiotis Soustos which inspired the wealthy Evangelos Zappas to donate money
to King Otto for the revival of the Olympic games in the hope that it would attract visitors and strengthen the
Greek economy. This attracted international interest and in 1893 the first Olympic Committee was established at
Sorbonne. The Greek government had little to do with the games. They had no money and did not want to take responsibility.
However the efforts of a few intellectuals and visionaries, combined with the money provided by wealthy Greeks
living abroad, as well as Athenians like Georgios Averof, who rebuilt the Panathenaikon stadium, inspired even
poor people to contribute to the Olympic fund and show that even without the help of government the people can
come together for a common goal.
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.
|Official Olympic Hymn
Immortal spirit of antiquity
Father of the true, beautiful and good
Descend, appear, shed over us thy light
Upon this ground and under this sky
Which has first witnessed they unperishable fame
Give life and animation to those noble games!
Throw wreaths of fadeless flowers to the victors
In the race and in the strife!
Create in our breasts, hearts of steel!
In thy light, plains, mountains and seas
Shine in a roseate hue and forma vast temple
To which all nations throng to adore thee
Oh immortal spirit of antiquity.
The contests held at the 1896 Olympics were:
- 100 Meter Dash
- 800 Meter Dash
- 110 Meter Hurdles
- 400 Meter Sprint
- 1500 Meter Race
- Broad Jump
- Triple Jump
- High Jump
- Pole Fault
- Fencing (Held in the Zappion Building's interior colonnade)
- Rowing (Postponed because of bad weather)
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:
England: 3Australia: 2
The other three countries who did not win gold medals were Russia, Italy and Turkey.
The winners were crowned by the King with a laurel wreath and also received branches of olive trees from the sacred
grove in Olympia, a diploma and the gold medal. Besides the sporting events Sophocles' Antigone was performed in
ancient Greek, there were displays of fireworks and of course the Olympic torch-bearing ceremony.
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
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.
More on the Olympics including my Post-Olympic
Review and Olympic
More 2004 Olympic Info:
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
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