Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Olympic Hangover

It was fun while it lasted, but now the Greeks are having to do some headscratching about what to do with all those fancy sports facilities built for the Olympics.

With the expected costs of hosting the Olympics likely to exceed €7bn (£4.7bn) - nearly twice the original budget - some Greeks fear that they might be paying for the venues for years to come.

Despite Athens winning worldwide praise for hosting a successful games, the return from the sale of around 3.6m tickets, two-thirds of the number available, will not cover the costs.

In a televised address, the prime minister, Costas Karamanlis, said the Olympics would herald the start of a new era. "[They are] an investment in the new period that Greece is beginning, the capital for the years ahead."

He added: "We will prioritise, making the best possible use of all the assets that the games have given us."

However, only the fate of non-competition venues such as the highly praised Olympic village and huge media centre, have been decided. While the former is destined to house low-income public sector workers and their families, the latter will be used as an exhibition and conference centre.

The undetermined status of the remaining sites has spawned fears that, like many Olympic ventures, the venues may end up as white elephants, an urban catastrophe that ultimately showcases the futility of hosting the games.

"Large sums were spent on the venues' construction, but no economic viability studies were drawn up for them," admitted Greece's alternate culture minister, Fani Palli-Petralia, who headed the Olympic preparations.


"Other major sports events can be held in them," Gianna Angelopoulou, chief organiser of the games, told the Guardian recently. "They are part of the great legacy of the games."

But the head of Hellenic Olympic Properties, a state-controlled holding company that is due to assume control of the venues, says that just maintaining the sites will pose problems.

The main Olympic stadium complex, which will remain the country's premier sports site, faces operational costs of €100m. Already local mayors have said they cannot afford to maintain the facilities.
That's the thing about prestige projects of this kind: even if one is willing to simply write off the initial costs and be done with it, the budget for maintenance still goes on draining the public purse forever - or at least until the whole thing is torn down, again at considerable public expense. Why cities actually compete to host the Olympic Games is beyond me: Londoners should have been glad that their latest bid for this poisoned chalice failed.