"And the Games of the 26th Olympiad are awarded to...At--"
Juan Antonio Samaranch had to go one extra letter before the
disappointment could set in. Only then--after the International
Olympic Committee president had intoned "Atlanta," not "Athens,"
with great ceremony in Tokyo on Sept. 18, 1990--could Greeks
begin the bitter, recriminatory process of accepting that the
1996 Olympic Games, their Olympics, had been hijacked from the
city in which the first modern Games took place.
So far as the Greek capital is concerned, they were stolen away
by vulgarians with greenbacks in their pockets and grits in
their teeth. The Centennial Olympics went not to the land in
which they were invented in 776 B.C. but to a nation that only
came into existence in 1776 A.D. They bypassed the city of Plato
and Pericles for the town of Ted Turner and Lester Maddox. The
symbolic homestead for the '96 Games won't be the Parthenon; it
will be Tara.
Frankly, Athenians give a damn. A half-dozen years after the
heartbreaking vote, vendors on the Plaka have discounted the
last of their ATHENS '96 T-shirts. The IOC's decision cuts even
deeper because three Olympic events (rhythmic gymnastics, soccer
and volleyball) will take place in Athens--Athens, Ga.
How badly did Greece want the Centennial Games? In 1986 the
Greek parliament unanimously adopted a resolution to do whatever
it took to get them, and no one could remember the last time
that fractious body had been unanimous about anything.
Organizers presented--not mailed but hand-delivered--to all 88
IOC members a handmade, six-volume, six-videocassette,
1,100-page, 27 1/2-pound dossier that made the case for their
city. Southern hospitality, Shmouthern hospitality; the Athens
bid committee promised to treat every one of 15,000 Olympic
athletes and officials to a three-day cruise on the Aegean.
To help sell itself to the world, Athens trotted out every
famous Greek but Zorba. From the late actress Melina Mercouri,
formerly Greece's minister of culture, to Vangelis, who wrote
the soundtrack theme to Chariots of Fire, to shipping magnates,
politicos, artists, writers and even King Constantine II--who
weighed in from exile in London--they added their voices to the
The city didn't merely begin to build a new Olympic Stadium in
an old olive grove in full expectation that the Games would
come; it also broke ground on an adjacent velodrome and indoor
and outdoor swimming centers, plus two sports halls for
gymnastics, volleyball and table tennis. Elsewhere, organizers
erected a tennis center and a shooting range, and began
renovating a water polo and diving facility, a baseball stadium,
a yachting basin, a canoeing and rowing canal, and a
weightlifting venue. All before the IOC's vote.
In the eight years leading up to September 1990, Athens hosted
21 world and European championships. Even after losing the IOC
vote, the city continued its hosting and bidding binge, staging
the 1991 Mediterranean Games and international events in
swimming, rhythmic gymnastics, cycling and basketball. The piece
de resistance came on April 6 of this year, when the city staged
a full-scale reenactment of the 1896 Olympic Games at
Panathinaikon Stadium, with a track and field program that
included the long jump, triple jump, pole vault and Greek-style
discus throw as well as sprints and a marathon. Even Samaranch
showed up. If they can't win the Games outright, by Zeus, the
Greeks seem determined to host an Olympics somewhere in time.
Alas, the folks who invented democracy had difficulty dealing
with its consequences. Shortly after finding his country on the
short end of the 51-35 vote, then President Constantine
Karamanlis ripped the IOC for selling out values for value,
ideals for deals. "The decision provokes rage and disgust,"
sputtered Sotiris Papapolitis, a member of the parliament. "This
is unacceptable theft." Added Prime Minister Constantine
Mitsotakis, "It was not Greece that was defeated but the Olympic
The average Greek in the street likened the IOC's selection
process to Z, the Costa-Gavras movie about intrigue and
corruption, and fingered several suspects, most notably
commercialism and television. Coca-Cola, the multinational
Olympic sponsor headquartered in Atlanta, caught the most
Was the loser's rage justified? Or nothing more than sour grape
The official story is this: The four members of the IOC's Study
and Evaluation Commission for the Preparation of the Games of
the XXVI Olympiad paid three-day visits to each of the six
competing cities. (The other candidates were Belgrade,
Manchester, Melbourne and Toronto.) To the local organizers
they posed the same set of questions, covering everything from
tidal conditions for yachting to whether hotel room rates would
be frozen for the Olympic fortnight. And they took copious
notes. (On the Yugoslav bid they remarked on "considerable
ethnic problems in certain republics." These IOC folks don't
miss a thing.)
Members of the commission ultimately declared each city
"capable" of staging the Games. But about Athens they made
several damning observations, all of which went into the final
report submitted to the IOC membership. "Concern regarding
current air pollution." "Vast amount of construction work and
forward planning required before '96." "Current
telecommunications systems not reliable." "Political situation
Visit Athens today, and it's hard to second-guess the IOC's
vote. Traffic flows like tzatziki and the view from the
Acropolis is breathtaking--in the sense of asphyxiating. But the
awarding of an Olympics can be a powerful prod to civic
improvement, as Barcelona proved four years ago. For the Games,
Athens was to have built a dazzling new airport, a ring road
girdling the city center and a modern subway system that would
have kept many Athenians out of their belching cars. Those plans
have been put on hold.
Greeks reflexively point to the same scapegoat: always
Coca-Cola. The company took out full-page ads in Greek
newspapers shortly after the vote to argue that it had been
officially neutral in the selection process. Indeed, Coke had
taken out equally huge ads before the vote, bannered ATHENS YOU
KNOW YOU CAN DO IT, and festooned soft-drink cans in Greece with
the olive-branch logo of the Athens bid committee.
In the vote's aftermath Coca-Cola employees in Greece found
themselves under attack. Some Greek distributors abruptly
refused to carry Coke products. Though it sponsors almost every
major sporting event around the world, Coke went into virtual
hiding in Greece during the fall of 1990; its logo and jingles
disappeared like airline advertising after a plane crash. As
recently as last summer, at the European Basketball
Championships in Athens, Coke was the brand that dared not speak
its name; the placards inside the arena advertised Coke's clear
If the Olympics had gone instead to Melbourne or Manchester, the
anger in Athens might have been more muted. But there has been
much resentment of things American since the 1984 L.A. Olympics,
when the Yanks hung a price tag on that sacrament of the Games,
the Olympic flame, selling off sponsorships for each leg of the
torch relay. Before every Olympics, Greek athletes carry the
flame from its source in Olympia to Athens, from which it is
airlifted to that Olympiad's host country. But Greeks regarded
L.A.'s fund-raising scheme as so profane that they refused to
stage the standard Olympia-to-Athens ceremonial run. (The flame
went by helicopter instead.) "We couldn't believe someone would
sell the torch, inch by inch, meter by meter," says Theo
Kotsonis, a reporter for Greek television. "It's crazy.
The Athenians' campaign for 1996 invoked history and high
ideals, but there was a bullying quality to it too. And though
prominent Greeks each struck slightly different notes, the
overall chord had the plaintive sound of entitlement.
"Can the world disagree that the mighty tree that over 100 years
has spread its branches to the ends of the earth must
acknowledge its roots?" asked movie director Michael Cacoyannis.
"Who would deny to the Romans the principles of justice?"
wondered Kostas Tsoklis, an artist. "To China, the discovery of
silk? To the Arabs, numbers? To France, its kings? Who then,
without remorse, could deny Greece the Olympic Games?"
Well, the IOC, for starters.
Hosting the Centennial Games, said Greek Olympic Committee
president Lambis Nikolaou, "is our significant, basic right."
Actually, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the French nobleman who
resurrected the Olympics a century ago, liked to say that they
"belong not to Greece, but to the world."
On those few occasions when Athens got beyond some variation on
its mantra of "I want my Maypo!" the city invoked its respect
for "frugality and measure, those classically Greek virtues" and
promised a Games along those lines. Indeed, an Athenian Olympics
would have been refreshingly (if the use of this word might be
excused) spartan. Athens organizers claim that they could have
put on the 1996 Games for just $1 billion--that's about $600
million less than the bill Atlanta has run up--and could have
covered the cost with revenue from TV broadcast rights,
marketing, ticket sales and donations. There would have been
official licensing and merchandising tie-ins, but probably no
status for Wheel of Fortune as official game show.
Not a year ago it looked as if the Games would never return to
their homeland. "We expect the IOC to let us undertake the
organization of an Olympics not after a vote, but just by
delegating them to us," huffed deputy minister of sports George
And then a curious thing happened. Hubris--a Greek word--gave
way to humility. A Greek-American doctor from Atlanta, Victor
Polizos, helped bear the torch between Olympia and Athens.
Samaranch personally invited Greek president Costis
Stephanopoulos to the opening ceremonies in Atlanta.
Unfortunately, Stephanopoulos was obliged to decline, citing
previous engagements. And the Greek Olympic Committee quietly
decided to bid for the 2004 Games.
The competition will be stiff: 11 other countries are readying
bids for those Olympics, including South Africa, which
represents the future every bit as much as Greece represents the
past. But Athens seems to have become reacquainted with the
Olympic credo--it's not the winning, but the taking part--that
it helped reintroduce to the world a century ago. And that will
count for something.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL SWERSEY The air pollution in Athens often makes the view from the Acropolis a breathtaking sight. [Acropolis and other buildings]
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL SWERSEY In April, Athens reenacted the 1896 Games with modern Greeks timed by ancient stop watches. [Runners on track racing past statue; officials with stopwatches]
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL SWERSEY Greeks believe the Olympic flame is sacred, not a commodity to be peddled as part of a promotion. [Women facing Olympic flame and holding olive branches]