In the end, Greece did it

Updated: September 10, 2004, 7:57 AM ET
By Steve Woodward | Special to ESPN.com

ATHENS, Greece -- The Olympic Games in Athens were supposed to be a small sports and cultural festival in a small but famous city. The 1896 Games, that is.

These 2004 Games were neither small nor always festive but they were surely delivered here, in this improbable host city by the sea, as advertised for years by often embattled organizers. Unmistakably, these were "unique games on a human scale."

Memories of any Olympic experience soften with time and, some day, we'll all forget many of the things about Athens and Greece that seemed so important in recent weeks. We'll probably forget that Athens wasn't supposed to be safe enough -- it was, mostly, other than the daily perils of navigating by foot or taxi. We might even forget that it was not big enough to be an Olympic Games host. Can we forget August 2004 in Greece was more than hot enough, indeed a perfect place to be re-acquainted with dormant sweat pores? Probably not.

Other than the incredible misjudgments, mistakes and misdeeds of some Olympic athletes, coaches and officials, everyone pretty much knew what we were in for in Athens. It is a city inside a country where family and tradition, food and leisure, cigarettes, coffee and conversation all matter much more than sport, at least not in the same way sport matters in soccer-crazed Europe or in a professional sports-crazed United States.

Greece is, after all, the land in which Olympic heritage is largely accidental, as the author Michael Llewellyn Smith writes. In his new book on the 1896 Games he notes that, 108 years ago, "Greece was drawing on the stock of antiquarian lore in hosting the revived Olympics. They would not have taken place at Athens but for the fact that the ancient games had taken place in Greece."

And they probably would not have taken place again the past 17 days had it not been for the "birthplace of the modern games" identity that was tagged on Athens and stuck.

Now Athens is the birthplace of the thoroughly modern games. The games of the $1.5 billion security bill and omnipresent spy blimps overhead. The games that will leave government leaders and Greek citizens wondering how they managed to spend at least $7 billion -- maybe as much as $11 billion -- on infrastructure and other facilities. The human scale exacted a staggering toll. The costs even dwarf the triumph of selling 3.5 million games tickets and exceeding a ticket revenue goal of more than $240 million.

Already, the few Olympians who are now fleetingly famous are exiting Athens with their olive wreaths and medals. In the United States, the Paul Hamms and Mia Hamms and Michael Phelps and Natalie Coughlins will head to the television talk shows. Soon enough they will be nibbling on fresh fruit and sipping chilled mineral water in green rooms even as the Greeks face a sea of red.

Columnist Antonis Karakousis, writing in the Athens daily newspaper Kathimerini, recently warned that "a tough autumn lies ahead" for all Athenians. He projects that "the economy will be facing a fiscal crisis -- which is more serious than is commonly believed."

It remains to be seen if this is more unfounded gloom and doom -- like the previous months' unfounded forecasts of an Olympic disaster awaiting the games and their visitors -- or a certainty. While the largely delightful Greek people might suffer a long economic hangover, those who came here to achieve on fields of play in sports, politics, marketing and media hopefully will try to weigh the positives against the annoying and find more of the former filling our memories. It's not an easy task:

  • So many wireless communications devices are in use during the games that the sound of chiming church bells at dusk is briefly mistaken for yet another cell phone going unanswered;

  • So much dust flies around inside the vast, barren Olympic Park area -- site of the main stadium, swimming, tennis and gymnastics -- and so little grass, walking paths or flowers exist, that we predict the Landscapers' Olympics will be the next practical use for the soon to be evacuated facility;

  • Stray dogs -- an estimated 3,000 -- are so abundant in the streets, the International Olympic Committee might have secretly considered a new sponsorship category covering canine flea, tick and grooming products.

  • Cafes offer two seating choices: Smoking and chain smoking.

    As Athenians slowly returned from summer holiday season to their city this week and the suffocating traffic predicted throughout the games finally materialized, it is mind-boggling to consider all that has transpired as the 28th Olympiad of the modern era came to a close.

    It started on the night of a magnificent opening ceremony with a lone boy in a boat, floating across a tranquil but temporary lake, a night that distracted Greeks for a few hours from the shame of two track stars and Olympians, Costas Kenteris and Katerina Thanou, who had dodged a drug test and mysteriously were injured in a bizarre motorcycle accident in the same day. Both later withdrew from the games under a dark cloud.

    A few days later, more than 200 miles away, competition returned for the first time to ancient Olympia with the staging of the men's and women's shot put on the grounds where the first Olympians competed in 776 B.C.

    Chief Olympic organizer Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki declared afterward, "The Gods must be smiling."

    Eventually, we learned that a Russian shot putter who won the gold medal in that sacred setting tested positive for a banned steroid and was disqualified, her medal revoked. Smiles were nowhere to be found.

    The Olympic Games do not make the world stop. They can't even stop traffic.

    But after watching the people of Greece rise up to meet and even exceed the expectations of a land that sometimes merely tolerates its Olympic birthright, we can hope once again that the world never stops the Olympic Games.