Olympics showcase Athens' difficult century

Updated: July 15, 2004, 6:14 PM ET
Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece -- On a map, Athens is unquestionably a European metropolis. Even the name of the continent comes from Greek mythology.

Many Greeks have yet to buy a ticket to the Games.

But attitudes, insecurities and history offer a blurrier picture about this ancient city's place in the world -- rooted in the West through political alliances, yet still influenced by its neighbor to the east.

This dual nature will be on full display to the world come August.

Visitors to the Summer Games will be able to gaze upon the Acropolis and other landmarks of Western civilization while enjoying food and music with an unmistakably Turkish flavor.

Some celebrate this complexity. Others see the Olympic homecoming as a way to shuck off the old ways and display a "modern" Athens. A City Council statement, for example, noted how a program to plant a new canopy of trees would help give their city "a European feel."

"The Greeks see themselves as having a foot in Europe and a foot outside Europe," said Alexander Kitroeff, a history professor at Haverford College and author of a new book about Greek identity and the Olympics. "They've always looked for recognition from Europe ... But I think Greeks, in a sense, feel themselves as outsiders -- not so much geographically, but culturally."

For the Olympics, this has meant more than a few anxious moments.

The International Olympic Committee's step-by-step concept for preparations was lost in translation. The Greek president, Costis Stephanopoulos, spoke with paternal pride of the "Greek way" of last-minute heroics. Olympic planners later came up with a remarkably bold spin: Racing to surmount years of delays was actually a showcase of Greek dedication and efficiency.

The Olympic deadlines did produce some needed upgrades, including subways extensions, highways and rail links.

Aerial views of Athens show how populous the city is today.

But the overall look of the city -- highly congested, sometimes neglected and round-the-clock frenetic -- remains intact. It's essentially a history lesson of Greece's uneasy century.

When the first modern Olympiad was held in Athens in 1896, the city had just about 100,000 people -- and maybe just as many sheep -- all within sight of the Acropolis. Today, greater Athens is a concrete carpet of more than 4 million people. About half of Greece's entire population is squeezed into a single valley.

It got this way through conflict and its aftermath.

Greek forces invaded the remnants of the Ottoman Empire in 1921. They were badly outmaneuvered and forced into retreat along with hundreds of thousands of ethnic Greeks. Many of the refugees straggled into Athens.

A population exchange treaty in 1923 further swelled Athens. About 1.5 million Greeks living in Turkey were repatriated to Greece, and approximately 800,000 Turks living in Greece and Bulgaria were resettled in Turkey.

After World War II, Greece fell into three years of civil war. Athens again was a magnet for rural migrants seeking jobs and a future. Within a generation, pastures sprouted office blocks. Charming cottages and homes were demolished to make way for warrens of drab apartment buildings.

It was an uncomfortable fit: a big city still with small-time roads and other services.

"Athens was on the verge of becoming a place that could be described as unmanageable," said Mayor Dora Bakoyianni, who took office in 2002.

She was lucky. Things were already starting to turn around. Exhaust-belching buses were retired. A new airport opened in 2001, replacing the old seaside airfield where stray dogs napped in the lounges. Construction of a subway and other rail links were given high priority because of the Olympics. A brand new highway around the city suddenly turned an hour stop-and-go trip into a 15-minute breeze.

"Some may say these projects were long overdue," said Fani Palli-Petralia, the government's top Olympic official. "That's correct. But at least they are getting done now."

The head of the Greek Orthodox Church, Archbishop Christodoulos, even gave the Olympic preparations a name: the Greek "bahalo," or screw-up.

"This is a -- should I say it? -- a Greek screw-up which is inherent in our character," he said in June. "But in some miraculous way, it produces good results."

It also could erase some of the nation's feelings of being outside the European mainstream.

"I think a successful Olympics ... would help transform Greek self understanding," Kitroeff said. "Greece will start to look at themselves more realistically as part of Europe. I think the self-deprecating nature of the Greeks is becoming more and more out of date."

Yet old habits may be hard to break.

Olympic ticket sales were sluggish -- owning to the general Greek aversion to plan ahead. Years of frantic construction around Athens also has sapped some enthusiasm for the games. Many Greeks pledge to go ahead with their annual ritual: the August holiday to the beach.

"When we (were awarded the Olympics) I think 95 percent of Greeks were very happy and very proud," said Nikos Dimou, a writer and commentator on Greek history and society. "I don't think they feel that way anymore ... because of the hassles, because of the costs. It may happen -- if things go well -- they will see the opening ceremony and be happy again. But, at this moment, I would say the Greek population is absent from the Games."

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press