ATHENS – As London prepares to host the 2012 Olympic Games, Athens’ experience eight years ago could offer some sobering lessons. Many of the facilities now lie overgrown and empty. Many Greeks – and even the head of the International Olympic Committee – say hosting the 2004 Olympics contributed to the country’s debt crisis.
The Olympic Park is one of the few quiet places in Athens.
The birdsong is occasionally interrupted by the sound of ships’ horns from the adjacent Aegean Sea. There are no cars and no people.
Eight years on from 2004, Athens’ Olympic Park is abandoned, overgrown, closed to the public.
The fencing arena is now a rusting warehouse.
The canoe slalom course was built at a cost of millions of dollars, with water pumped from a manmade lake. The lake is dry; pipes lie discarded on the edge of the park.
Manolis Trickas is a councilor of the Athens suburb Hellenikon next to the park. He laments what he calls the waste of the 2004 Olympics.
He says it was all about consumption in order to capitalize on the Olympic phenomenon and create advertising spots to sell products. Unfortunately, he says, the Olympic Games were catastrophic for Greece.
The head of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogge, told a Greek newspaper last year that the Athens Olympics aggravated the country’s debt problem. The government estimated the cost at $11 billion.
But that did not include other projects commissioned or accelerated in time for the 2004 Games – including a new metro and tram system, a new airport and highway.
On the edge of the Olympic Park, former members of Greece’s 2004 softball team train for their next match. Greek-American Louisa Sharp was an official scorer in the Athens Games. She says the Olympic facilities should be saved.
“They’re very, very beautiful, very expensive, and it’s sad that somebody can’t turn that around and even make a profit,” said Sharp.
Sharp says the legacy of getting children involved in sport is also fading.
“It did pick up momentum prior to and through the Olympics and a little afterwards, she said. “But things are economically a little bit difficult, and I think parents have turned their children more towards academic sources [for later in life].”
The government wants to sell the Olympic Park to private companies. Several firms have expressed interest, including a firm from Qatar, who wants to turn it into a huge casino with a hotel and an airport for private jets.
Local councilor Manolis Trickas has other ideas. He and a team of local residents have begun planting olive trees. A small grove has begun to take over part of the park.
He says that during this period of financial crisis, cultivation is a solution, even with these small crops, to stave off hunger. “We believe that accumulating money will not help us out of this kind of crisis, but a network of solidarity will support us.
London is preparing to host the 2012 Games at a cost of $14.3 billion. The people of Hellenikon say the experience of Athens should act as a warning of a failed Olympic legacy,” he said.