Amid the shantytown shacks built of scrap lumber and plastic bags, the giant, slowly rusting metal structure looks like an intergalactic visitor from the distant future.
Actually, as the residents of the Athens slum of Liosia are well aware, the wrestling stadium landed here exactly seven months ago. It was one of the dozen major buildings constructed at considerable expense for last year’s Olympics. Its arrival came with promises of new houses, paved streets and economic prosperity.
Instead, the stadium sits empty, gathering rubble, surrounded by snuffling pigs, barefoot children and scattered garbage. People in Liosia still live in shipping containers and walk on mud streets. Their town, along with the entire Greek economy, is less prosperous than it was a year ago.
Further north, in the remote sheep-farming region of Thrakomakedones, is another futuristic vision. The modern glass-and-concrete apartments of the Olympic village, which housed 17,300 people in August, now look like an abandoned space colony, occupied only by stray dogs and a few dozen soldiers guarding against squatters. Rust, disrepair and mildew are slowly taking their toll.
Joining these lonely places, and dozens of others, is an elegant mass-transit system that has failed to attract any masses, as its trams move at a sluggish 25 kilometres per hour between destinations that made sense only last August.
When the tram is mentioned, Charalambos Tsardanidis looks downcast. A normally cheery economist who advises the Greek government, he had been optimistic, like most Greeks, about the potential of the Olympic Games to transform one of Europe’s poorest countries.
“During the Olympics, it was a different city,” he says. “People were very disciplined. The transit worked well, everything looked good, people behaved.”
Greece enjoyed a hot summer of national pride, but now Greeks are learning the true cost of the Games. To get facilities built on time, they paid three to five times the original estimates, and allowed sloppy building techniques that now leave many of the structures crumbling.
The $18-billion tab, the largest in Olympic history, has caused debt to spiral. This week, Athens announced that Greece now has the highest level of public debt in the 25-member European Union. This has necessitated a national austerity program for at least two years, and possibly much longer — exactly the opposite of the economic effect governments had promised for the post-Olympic years.
Worst of all, the Games seem to have left no permanent legacy, no lasting benefit, beyond the scars. Greece expressed vague hopes a year ago that the International Olympic Committee would adopt Athens as the permanent home of the Games. So stadiums and other facilities were built lavishly, permanently, and with almost no thought to future use.
In Athens, the feeble tram system is an embarrassing reminder of these scars, and many people want it gone. “Athens is served with a lot more infrastructure — without solving the problem of traffic at all,” Mr. Tsardanidis says. “The tram’s a total failure as far as I’m concerned. It’s useless for most people.”
So is the handball stadium, perched on a lonely stretch of beach. And the weightlifting stadium, which looks like a palace. And the railroad line, which cannot be transformed into a useful commuter train until Greece builds a final link, which it cannot currently afford.
Many of these buildings are now falling apart. “We have a big problem, because we didn’t have any thoughts about what we’d do with all these structures after the Games,” says Theodoros Dragiotis, head of Greece’s engineering organization, whose members oversaw Olympic construction. “When they’re neglected that long, moisture and decay start to do their work. And when they’re badly constructed, it all happens much more quickly.”
His engineers do not deny that much of the construction was poor. A year ago, the facilities were badly behind schedule, so Greece imported thousands of Albanian labourers, who did not speak Greek and were often unfamiliar with the construction methods.
They built an impressive marathon route, but with no thought to drainage. That highway has created flooding and dangerous water backups in important seaside tourist locations. The whole thing will probably need to be demolished, at great expense. Yet their round-the clock labour added billions to Greece’s Olympics bill.
It also created serious flaws in some of the buildings. An elaborate arch-shaped roof on the main Athens stadium easily falls prey to wind and rain; large gaps in many of the buildings leave them open to moisture and drafts. An elegant pedestrian bridge has been closed for months because it was built from shoddy wood. At least half-a-dozen buildings require major, expensive repairs. The government had hoped that private investors would buy many of the buildings for redevelopment, but the flaws have deterred bidders.
Last year, the Greek government announced a lottery for low-income Athens residents to buy Olympic Village apartments at subsidized prices. More than 20,000 people applied for about 2,300 apartments, but the winners will not be able to move in until the end of this year, when a company has renovated the structures, adding kitchens and repairing their considerable decay. Then the new residents will find themselves living in a remote area, closer to the mountains than the distant city, and offering few employment opportunities.
Meanwhile, according to newspapers here, Greece’s 2005 maintenance budget for the empty buildings, including the cost of security guards, is $140-million.
Greece is certainly not the only nation to face a post-Olympic hangover. It happens all over the world. Montreal, for example, will officially stop paying for the 1976 Olympics at the end of next year.
But Greece is a poor country, and its hopes had been much higher: An expected tourist boom, resulting from the international attention given to Greece’s picture-perfect Olympics, failed to materialize. Tourism is actually below normal, in part because the Games drew attention to the fact that things are as expensive in Athens as in Paris.
There are a few bright signs: The Athens waterfront was cleaned up, and is turning into a very attractive and popular district. And the commuter trains, once they run, will create a more modern Athens. But there’s a sense of regret that the money wasn’t used for more humble, more domestic improvements, rather than grandiose dreams.
“There was a big program to plant thousands of trees in Athens, and we couldn’t do this,” says Mr. Dragiotis, the engineer. “This is a pity because we really do need more trees here, and trees would really be better for the city than many of the things we did build.”