By Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki
We Greeks have a long history of confounding those who underestimate us: The dramatic triumph of our soccer team in the European Championship this July is just the latest in a series of surprise victories — victories that predate the written word.
Three thousand years ago, the Greek army reversed an apparent retreat from the walls of Troy, interrupting a Trojan victory celebration and beginning our tradition of comeback wins. During Greece’s Golden Age, a much smaller Greek force defeated the Persians at the Battle of Marathon. As the routed Persians fled to their ships, history’s first marathoner brought news of the victory to Athens.
Next month, elite runners from around the world will retrace that herald’s historic steps during an Athens Olympic Games that will unite the world in a celebration of sport, peace and human achievement — and remind the world once again never to count the Greek people out.
We have never tried to hide the fact that Athens came out of the blocks slowly after being awarded the games in 1997. But, since 2000, the ATHENS 2004 Organizing Committee has worked with the Greek government, the International Olympic Committee, the private sector and most of all the Greek people to complete seven years of work in four years’ time. And we did it. Together.
Many Greeks are frustrated by press coverage that, in the face of all our accomplishments, remains negative — colored by prejudices that no longer apply and recycling issues long since resolved.
So let’s address the key issues in a straightforward way.
Can Athens manage an Olympics? It can.
Athens is cleaner, calmer and more liveable than it has been in decades. We’ve built one of Europe’s most efficient international airports and a subway that moves one million people a day. One hundred twenty-five miles of roadway have been built or widened, and traffic is now managed by a computerized system. New pathways and amenities make access to our fabled antiquities easier than ever. Modern Athens has never been more beautiful.
Is our city safe? It is. Athens has capitalized on its Olympic opportunity to build a security shield consistent with the demands of our troubled times. We have spent $1.2 billion on security improvements and trained 71,000 security personnel. We have enlisted our NATO allies to help patrol our borders and skies, formed bilateral security arrangements with neighbors and sought counsel from nations with special security expertise. Modern Athens has never been safer.
Will Athens be ready to host the Games? It will. In recent years, we have built sports venues already being described as “the best in the world.” The roof — with pieces twice the weight of the Eiffel Tower — is in place over our refurbished Olympic stadium, the capstone of the most architecturally impressive sports facilities in Olympic history — venues that will foster fantastic performances in breathtaking settings. Modern Athens has never been more prepared.
If the world is surprised when the Athens games are a triumph for the Olympic movement, the people of Greece will not be. We’ve built a dynamic country with one of Europe’s fastest-growing economies and membership in both NATO and the European Monetary Union. We know how hard we have worked to make these games successful, and we know how often Greeks have come from behind to take the gold.
Twenty-four hundred years after that courier became the first marathon runner, Spiridon Louis of Greece lined up for the first modern Olympic marathon in 1896. Foreign runners were expected to dominate. Indeed, Louis started slow and fell well behind.
With six miles remaining and Louis still out of site, the leader — Australian Edwin Flack — sent a cyclist to announce that Flack would win. But, with a final burst of energy, Louis passed Flack, took the lead and finished the race in triumph. One marathon historian said his victory propelled “the modern Olympic movement into the 20th century.”
I predict Athens will repeat Spiridon Louis’ achievement this summer, finishing our race in triumph and hosting a celebration that will spark the Olympic movement into the 21st century. We invite the world to look ahead, with Athens, to join us in celebrating what will surely be a secure and uniquely compelling Olympic Games — and another stunning victory for Greece.
Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki is the president of Athens 2004 Organizing Committee.
It was Published July 22, 2004 in the Washington Times.