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Greece Proud of Olympics, Despite High Cost - 2004-08-27

Greece says the costs of hosting the 2004 Summer Olympics will exceed $8.5 billion, because of massive investments in security and overruns caused by a delay in finishing construction projects. But many Greeks say that, whatever the final cost, it is outweighed by the boost given to their country's international reputation.

The Greek government says its major objective in hosting the Olympics was to redefine itself in the eyes of the world as a modern European country. Another more tangible benefit has been a huge improvement in Athens' transportation system and gleaming new sports facilities.

But all that has come at a price. The original $5.5 billion budget aimed at transforming Athens into a suitable Olympic setting has now ballooned by another $3 billion, and some analysts say it could go as high as $12 billion when all the bills come in.

But that does not seem to bother George Mergos, the secretary-general of the Finance Ministry, who says that Greece will manage its rising budget deficit one way or another.

"I would say, OK, we wanted the Olympics. We enjoyed it. We feel that it changes the image of Greece. It was money well spent," he said.

Mr. Mergos and many other Greeks are hoping that the pain arising from the cost overruns, which will be borne by Greek taxpayers, will be balanced by the gain they foresee in increased tourism and foreign investment.

George Papageorgiou, the business and financial editor of Eleftherotypia, a leading Athens newspaper, says the infrastructure improvements are the most concrete legacy of the Games.

"We spent a lot of money, but it was a necessary investment for the city to be a modern city, which will be able to welcome future events and future tourists," said Mr. Papageorgiou.

Athens now has a modern transportation system-new subway lines, new trains, new highways and a new airport, as well as new sports facilities.

The frenzy of last-minute construction to get Olympic venues and infrastructure projects completed on time for the Games' opening two weeks ago are part of the reason for the budget overruns. Another was the unprecedented cost of security, more than $1 billion, at the first Summer Olympics to be held since the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the United States.

Mr. Papageorgiou, the editor, says he thinks the spending on an expensive new state-of-the-art security system was unnecessary, and that what he calls hysteria about terrorism in the international news media kept many potential visitors away from the Games.

"We didn't have so many tourists as we were waiting for. Well, this was in part because of the terrorism threat, but, in fact, I think we overstated the security aspect," he added. "But that's partly because of the pressures we had, you know, from foreign countries in general. But we paid an awful lot of money for the security infrastructure."

Mr. Papageorgiou acknowledges that the delay in completing the Olympic facilities made it impossible for Greece to conduct a tourism marketing campaign linked to the Games that could have attracted more visitors.

Greece's budget deficit is now running at above four percent of Gross National Product, and it has been given until November by the European Union to come up with corrective measures to rein in the deficit next year. Finance Ministry officials like Mr. Mergos say Greece intends to cut defense spending, speed up privatization and fight bureaucratic procedures that hamper investment.

But Greece is faced with another problem, what to do about the 40 or so Olympic venues that have been built for the Games. The government estimates that the cost of maintaining those facilities may reach $100 million a year. It intends to use some of them, like the Olympic Village, as offices and others as year-round training facilities for Greek and foreign athletes. It is also studying plans to sell or lease the remaining installations.

Despite what one economist describes as the fiscal hangover of the Games, Mr. Mergos and other Greek officials say the most positive result of Greece's role as host of the Olympics is that its international image has been changed forever.

"Up to now, everybody was saying that Greece would not be able to build the venues, will not be able to organize the Olympics, would not have a friendly city for the visitor and the spectator of the Olympics, [that] this is a country, which is unorganized. And all of a sudden, you see that all these accusations evaporate," he notes. "And you have a country, which has built the venues, has organized an event, which is very complicated, with well-trained volunteers. ? The city is very nice and very clean, well-organized. Transportation is organized. So, if we changed the image, we have succeeded."

Despite the heavy financial burden it faces, Mr. Mergos says, Greece, once considered a charming but provincial backwater by other Europeans, has finally shown that it can confidently look the rest of the world in the eye.