ATHENS, Greece – In an obscure corner of a park sits a forlorn reminder that, 10 years ago, Athens hosted the 2004 Summer Olympics. The crumbling miniature theater is inscribed with the words “glory, wealth, wisdom, victory, triumph, hero, labor” – and it is where visiting Olympic officials planted an olive sapling that would bear their names for posterity.
Once a symbol of pomp, the marble theater is now an emblem of pointless waste in a venture that left a mixed legacy: a brand-new subway, airport and other vital infrastructure that significantly improved everyday life in a city of 4 million, set against scores of decrepit sports venues built in a mad rush to meet deadlines – with little thought for post-Olympic use.
As Greece groans under a cruel economic depression, questions linger of whether the Athens Games were too ambitious an undertaking for a weak economy. While economists agree it would be unfair to blame the meltdown on the 17-day Games, the post-Olympic era is seen as a decade of lost opportunities – including failure to significantly boost the country’s sporting culture. It’s a lesson to which Brazil may pay heed, as it races to complete projects ahead of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
“We didn’t take advantage of this dynamic that we got in 2004,” said former Olympic weightlifting champion Pyrros Dimas, a Greek sporting hero turned Socialist member of Parliament. “We simply made the biggest mistake in our history: We switched off, locked up the stadiums, let them fall to pieces, and everything finished there.”
“We spent a lot of money for some projects [that] are shut and rotting,” said Dimas, who won his last Olympic medal in an Athens arena now reinvented as a lecture and conference venue. “There were projects that should have cost 2 and 3 million [euros] and suddenly became so big that they cost 13 and 14 million. There was no control.”
The latest government estimate sets the final cost of the Games at 8.5 billion euros, double the original budget but a drop in the ocean of the country’s subsequent 320 billion-euro debt, which spun out of control after 2008. Former organizing committee chief Gianna Angelopoulos has commissioned the first independent survey of the Olympics’ overall economic effect. It will aim to weigh Olympic overspend and waste against a possible boost to the crucial tourism industry – arrivals have almost doubled since 2004, from 11.7 to 20.1 million – foreign investment and employment.
“The Olympics were very important in increasing the brand awareness ... of Greece,” said economist Theodore Krintas, managing director of Attica Wealth Management. “But we did very, very limited things on a follow-up basis.”
Andrew Zimbalist, a U.S. economist who studies the financial impact of major sporting events, said past experience shows that hosting the Olympics does not generally promote economic development: “At the end of the day, the main benefit to be had seems to be a feel-good experience that the people in the host city or the host country have,” said Zimbalist, a professor of economics at Smith College. “But that’s a fleeting experience, not something that endures.
“Why couldn’t Athens have simply invested ... in development and transportation and communications and infrastructure, and not hosted the Olympics?”
The cost of hosting the Olympics and ensuring a city is not left with white elephants is a key issue facing the International Olympic Committee and new president Thomas Bach. Scared off by the record $51 billion price tag associated with the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, several Western European cities declining to bid or dropped out of the race for the 2022 Winter Games.
Reducing the cost and focusing on long-term sustainability is part of Bach’s “Olympic Agenda 2020,” a package of reforms that will be voted on at a special meeting in Monaco in December.
In Greece, few of the sporting venues – mostly purpose-built permanent structures – have seen regular post-Olympic use. The badminton venue is a successful concert hall, but the empty table-tennis and gymnastics stadium is up for sale, and the beach volleyball center has been rarely used and was recently looted.
Most venues are padlocked.
The seaside site of Athens’ old airport hosted half a dozen venues. Politicians have dithered for a decade over how to use the sprawling plot – meaning facilities have simply been left to rot. Lengths of large tubing lie near abandoned runways. Decommissioned jumbo jets sit near where planners once dreamed of building a water amusement park. This year, private investors won a tender to develop the entire area into a residential, commercial, hotel and leisure center, in a 7 billion-euro investment.
Greek Olympic Committee head Spyros Capralos, a senior member of the 2004 organizing committee, said the state of the sporting venues “puts our country to shame.” The former swimming champion and two-time Olympic water polo competitor blames bureaucracy and lack of foresight.
“Nobody was thinking what would happen the next day,” he said. “Many of the sports facilities were constructed just to be constructed ... and nobody thought that they required a lot of money for maintenance after the Olympic Games.”
In their haste to meet implacable construction deadlines, government officials didn’t even secure proper planning permits for several venues, including the elegant crown on the main Olympic Stadium – a steel canopy by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava.
Greece’s sports ministry says it has finally rectified the permits oversight, which until now hindered necessary repairs and maintenance, and funding has been found to conserve the roof.
Overall, Capralos insisted, the Games were a boost for Greece, mainly due to non-sports infrastructure pegged to the Games that otherwise might never have materialized.
“It saddens me that public opinion has come to believe the Athens Olympic Games were not successful,” he said. “They were very much so, both from the sports aspect and through projects that gave life to Athens – tourism has increased, there is a modern airport, roads, the metro, phones work properly and when it’s very hot the power system doesn’t collapse.”
Capralos believes the legacy of the stadiums can still be salvaged.
“Simply, someone must do whatever is needed for the venues to be taken over by the private sector – because I don’t think the state can be a very good entrepreneur or venue manager.”