They all said it couldn’t be done. Greece was too small a country to successfully host the Olympics. The stadiums wouldn’t be finished in time. The Greeks were bad, lazy organizers. Even if the Games did go off, poor security meant a terrorist could waltz right in and blow the whole event to smithereens. By all accounts, it was a disaster waiting to happen.
Two weeks after the conclusion of the wildly successful Athens Games, the world has learned how unreliable the media’s forecasts of doom can be. The Games’ opening and closing ceremonies were spectacular celebrations of Greek history and culture and moving paeans to the Olympic ideals of sportsmanship and world peace. The events’ venues were world-class in every way, and the main Olympic complex, with its soaring arches by Santiago Calatrava and undulating Wall of Nations, was vastly superior to the central sites of Atlanta or Barcelona. Touches of antiquity could be seen in the shot put competition in ancient Olympia and in the marathon, run on the very route that gave the event its name 2,500 years ago — but the old never threatened to overshadow Athens’ new and dynamic face. Tens of thousands of volunteers swarmed the Olympic venues and city streets, welcoming visitors to Athens with infectious warmth. And everything ran perfectly on time, leading Greeks to shake their heads in amazement that their country had, for a fortnight at least, turned into Switzerland.
As successful as the Games were, many Greeks expressed some resentment toward the rest of the world, which they viewed as not appreciative enough of the sacrifices they had made. Greece, the smallest country to host the Olympics in more than 50 years, spent $7.2 billion on the Games — a bit more, as a fraction of GDP, than what America spends on its entire military each year. The $1.5 billion security price tag for the Athens Games was 15 times what Atlanta shelled out in 1996. For years, the preparations for the Olympics dominated Greek news and made much of Athens one giant construction site. And despite all these Herculean efforts, press coverage leading up to the Games was relentlessly critical. In one montage, a CNN reporter conceded that some of Athens’ infrastructure improvements, in particular the shiny new subway, were impressive, but reported breathlessly that he had discovered a layer of bare concrete beneath a new suburban plaza built for the Olympics. Exposed to such fine investigative reporting, fewer foreigners than expected attended the Games, and the early rounds of many events were marred by empty seats in the stands. It is little wonder, then, that the Games left a bittersweet taste in the mouths of many Greeks — combining pride in their country’s accomplishments with frustration at the world’s reluctance to acknowledge them.
As a Greek-American in Athens during the Olympics, I was very aware of Greeks’ mixed feelings about the Games. After learning that I speak Greek, people told me over and over again how happy they were that their dusty metropolis was transforming into a world-class city. They were excited that Calatrava’s futuristic arches were joining the Parthenon as the indelible images of the Athens skyline. But the Greeks I talked to also asked me with real hurt in their voices why the media insisted on portraying Athens’ Olympic preparations so negatively, why richer countries refused to help pick up the tab for the Games’ security, and why people stayed home instead of coming to Athens to observe first-hand the city’s renaissance. At the events that I attended, Greeks often sat on their hands when Americans — whom the Greeks blamed for many of the Games’ problems — won, and cheered lustily when they were beaten.
It is easy to criticize any deviation from perfect sportsmanship. And I often did just that, both directly by talking to Greeks who refused to applaud American athletes, and indirectly by cheering as loudly as I could for the United States whenever I was in the stands myself. Still, it seems to me that the lukewarm reception the U.S. Olympic team received in Athens says less about Greece than it does about America. Mock a country’s Olympic preparations, throw words like laziness and incompetence around, decline to pay for security precautions that the United States itself is insisting on, and it is no surprise that people will grimace rather than applaud when an American wins another medal.
But approach things with an open mind, reserve judgment until the evidence is in, smooth America’s rough edges a bit — both when it comes to sporting events and to foreign affairs in general — and people everywhere should eagerly warm to American athletes, spectators and policies.
Nicholas Stephanopoulos is a second-year student at Yale Law School. His column appears on alternate Mondays.