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Greece Hopes Olympics Will Showcase Its Modern Side - 2004-08-13

With Friday's official opening of the Olympic Games in Athens, Greece is hoping to promote itself on the world stage as a modern can-do nation. But, as VOA's Roger Wilkison reports from Athens, the Games are also a severe test for a small country that just barely got ready in time for its big role as Olympic host.

"Welcome Home," says the greeting on banners and billboards all over Athens. The words refer both to the first modern Olympics, held in the Greek capital in 1896, and the ancient Games that flourished at the height of the country's classical civilization.

Greece was heartbroken when it lost its bid to host the 1996 Games, a role it thought it deserved for having originated both the ancient and the modern Olympic tradition. But it mounted a successful campaign that won it the right to host the world's premier sporting event eight years later.

Now, after having endured construction delays, faced up to security concerns and found itself saddled with cost overruns in its mad dash to get everything ready on time, Greece has completed what it calls its national project.

Reporters asked Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, the head of the local organizing committee, whether it had been difficult to convince the world that Greece could be a credible host.

"It was because, at the beginning [in 1996], Greece wanted that by right, but we wanted that on merit," she said. "We wanted to prove to the international community that we have the heritage, we have the history, the Games, they were born and reside here. But what is important is that we can technically do it. And here we are. We prepared everything."

The Greek organizers and government officials know that what is at stake here is much more than hosting the world's biggest sporting event. Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis says the Olympics also offer Greece its best chance to redefine itself in the eyes of the world as a modern European state.

"The rest of the world has an opportunity to meet modern Greece," said Mr. Karamanlis. "Everybody thinks of Greece as an historical legacy, the monuments, et cetera. But modern Greece is a competitive country, a democracy at the heart of Europe, which can make its own contribution to the modern world."

Mr. Karamanlis and his aides hope that, if Athens delivers a successful Olympics, Greece will attract increased flows of tourism and investment that will sustain economic growth in the medium term. But with the cost of staging the Games running at $7 billion, and expected to go even higher, the benefits foreseen by the government are by no means assured.

With economists predicting a budget deficit of four percent, a slowdown in economic activity and a spike in unemployment in Athens after the Games are over, some Greeks are likely to ask whether hosting the Olympics was worth it.

But to Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, the chief organizer, that doesn't matter. She says that, in their rush to get ready on time, Greeks underwent a change in their mindset.

"I always trusted the people of my country, because I believe they have done the impossible," she said. "And you know why? They changed attitude. They changed their way of working. They are team oriented. They became disciplined, and in four years, we prepared our country."

Even Mr. Karamanlis admits that Greeks will not see the economic benefits of hosting the Games in the short run. Part of the cost overrun was due to a doubling of the security budget, for these are the first Summer Olympics to be staged since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the United States.

Athens Mayor Dora Bakoyannis says her city is the first Olympic host to have to find a balance between security precautions and the festive atmosphere symbolized by the Games.

"We knew that, having this situation, we had to secure the Games as much as possible," said Mayor Bakoyannis. "We also knew that we are the first who were responsible to balance security with the identity of the Games."

Mayor Bakoyannis and many other Greeks have been anxious for the Games to begin. Now, it is a matter of getting through the next 16 days. Like many of his fellow citizens, Athens University professor Theodore Couloumbis hopes that, by the time the Olympics are over, Greece will have set aside its past insecurities and created the impression that it is a normal European country.

"I think it will be a nice test, and it will be a good opportunity for us finally to say this was the big one, and we did it," he said.

Mr. Couloumbis says Greeks have not lost their happy-go-lucky attitude to life, but he says they should also be seen as hard workers who try to reach the goals they set for themselves.