Was It Worth It? Debt-Ridden Greeks Question the Cost of the 2004 Olympics

Eight years after the Athens Summer Games, Greece is in economic turmoil, and the value of all the expensive facilities is in question

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ANGELOS TZORTZINIS / AFP / Getty Images

A view of the disused Olympic softball stadium in Athens on June 11, 2012

The Helliniko Olympic Complex in Athens was supposed to be thriving long after the 2004 Summer Olympics had ended. Built on part of the site of the city’s old airport for the Games, the facility housed the canoe and slalom events as well as arenas and sites for field hockey, baseball, softball, basketball and fencing. There were big plans to turn much of the complex into the largest metropolitan park in Europe, but that never happened, largely because of the bureaucracy that hampers most development in Greece. Today, the complex sits amid overgrown weeds, virtually deserted.

It’s been eight years since Greece, the birthplace of the Games, proudly hosted the Olympics, which London will host this summer. But as the country grapples with the destabilizing effects of the European economic crisis, many Greeks now look back on the Games with more regret than pride.

(SPECIAL: What Becomes of Olympic Stadiums?)

“It felt good at the time because we were the center of the world, and we got to show off our country,” says gymnast Christos Libanovnos of the Hellenic Gymnastics Federation, which uses the former Olympic complex for training. “But what did it cost? So much money — billions of euros. And now we are bankrupt and everything just gets worse and worse every day. It’s hard not to see a connection. It’s hard not to think that maybe it wasn’t worth it.”

Libanovnos helps train young gymnasts — including some visiting from other countries — in the old Olympic facility, but the place is so run-down that proper practice can be difficult. “We were embarrassed to let them in here. There’s a layer of dust everywhere and no air-conditioning,” he says. “And the trash bins are overflowing because there’s no cleaning staff.”

Hosting the Olympics certainly didn’t cause the country’s financial mess. Greece has a long history of systemic problems with labor productivity, public-sector debt and corruption. But in retrospect, the Athens Games appear now to be a high mark for modern-day Greece. It came at a moment when the euro, which Greece adopted a few years before, had brought the country a remarkable degree of wealth in a short period of time. Greece’s — and Europe’s — financial instability would’ve seemed unimaginable.

But in fact, the 2004 Olympics were a microcosm of Greek economic dysfunction: missed budget estimates, poor planning, financial mismanagement. It cost Greece about $11 billion, at least double what the Greek government had initially budgeted — and that doesn’t include the money the country has spent trying to maintain its rarely used Olympic facilities over the past eight years. It was forced — mainly by the U.S. and the U.K. — to spend $1.2 billion on security alone because of fears over terrorism, and in the months leading up to the opening ceremonies, Athens had to rush its schedule just to get construction projects completed on time.

(SPECIAL: A Long History of Olympic Politics)

“If you look at the mistakes they made in preparing for the Games, you could say that similar types of mistakes led Greece into the debt difficulties they’re facing now,” says Mark Spiegel, who works for the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco and has written about the economic effects of hosting the Olympics, referring to Greece’s budget and construction problems.

Andrew Rose, a University of California, Berkeley, economics professor who co-authored a paper with Spiegel called “The Olympic Effect,” says that even though Greece’s debt is in the hundreds of billions of dollars today, the Games clearly added to Greece’s fiscal woes. “Such events are almost all wasteful for advanced open economies like Greece,” he says.

For years, studies have shown that holding the Olympics often has severe negative economic effects on host cities, despite the temporary burst of tourism and global attention. The competition between cities often causes governments to go financially overboard merely to win an Olympic bid. Once construction gets under way, governments often fail to budget properly. And after the Games are over, many cities are left with infrastructure that suddenly has no real use.

Not everyone, however, accepts that rationale. Some argue, for instance, that hosting the Olympics brings cities much-needed infrastructure projects.

“Because of the Games, we now have the metro, a new airport and new roads,” says Isidoros Kouvelos of the Hellenic Olympic Committee. “Of course there are idle stadiums — these white elephants — but that’s not the whole story.”

The Summer Olympics in London appear to be no different. Even though the coalition government has made some budget cuts in Olympic spending as part of its attempts to reduce its budget deficit, a new report by Oxford University shows that the London Olympics are on track to be the most overbudget Games since Atlanta in 1996.

Even though the Greeks were jubilant eight years ago, many are completely ignoring the Games this time around.

“No one wants to talk about the Olympics, even though we have athletes at the London Games — and athletes who could win medals,” says Vassilis Sambrakos, a Greek sports-radio personality and columnist. “Many Greeks believe the 2004 Games was all built on a big lie — a lie that we had the money to pay for all these lavish centers and ceremonies. That seems like ancient history.”

— With Reporting by Joanna Kakissis / Athens

MORE: 50 Olympic Athletes to Watch

41 comments
Peter Zorbas
Peter Zorbas

Plain and simple, it's a Kleptocratic culture.  The Olympics are a small blip in the bigger picture.  Greece has never been the same it was in the ancient or Byzantine times.  It's just a bunch of selfish, greedy, corrupt dynastic officials running the circle over and over again and Greek people are stupid to realise what's happening because of the largesses by the government such as the Olympics, high pensions, government job, bank capital etc etc.  The country cannot pull itself from it's abyss if it does not eliminate all the politicians with names smeared in scandal. A total eradication is required. Unfortunately, the junta staged a coup for similar reasons and in retrospect, it wasn't such a bad idea after all. There's no fear in justice and if there's no fear, there's no justice and no justice means no backbone.

Orwell11
Orwell11

Ah, another far-right "Greek" who supports a military dictatorship, while repeating the same old stereotypes.  How quaint.

andy
andy

just now greeks realize that it was a very big mistake for them hosting the olympic game?hmmmm, greek drama shall never end,goodluck,

Ben Gunn
Ben Gunn

Yes, yes, yes - athletics, field events and, just maybe, swimming, and certainly nothing that depends on judges. Also agree with Mr Kidwell that there should be a permanent single world site if we're to continue with the damn thing at all: it costs tens of millions even to make a bid and for sure there are vested interests, in other words, crooks, that find it a wonderful source of siphoning off other people's money, rather like the soccer world cup.

However, because of the fore-mentioned, I can assure you it won't happen this side of  the sun's becoming a red giant.

 

matia14
matia14

As a resident of Athens, Greece and former employee of Athens 2004 - the question of "was it worth it" is not easy to answer. If it wasn't for the Olympics I don't think we would have completed new, significant infrastructure projects such as new highways, new int'l airport in Athens, new metro system, upgrade of old metro line, new suburban railway.... It is unfortunate and disappointing (to say the least) to see the former Olympic venues go to waste - this is the purely the fault of the useless gov't - on every level.....

http://themanyfacesofnewathens...

Mike259
Mike259

I often wonder if countries ever make their money back on all the infrastructure that has to be put in place to host the Olympic games. You constantly read about large structures that are left to decay because there is not enough use for them after the games are over. Talk about waste of money and resources.

romano71
romano71

NOW they are questioning the cost of the Olympics, 8 years later? NOW???? No wonder they are in trouble, sounds like they are s.....l.......ooooooo........w in catching up with reality.

Always_in_Time
Always_in_Time

Many - MANY - people in Greece DID question all that back then, but they were labelled 'traitors' and 'anti-Greek' and were castigated by individuals and media both within and outside of Greece. But the money to be made - by domestic and international companies in so many sectors - is just too big... The Olympics are a huge source of financial profit for so many around the world - it's the taxpayers who foot the bill for so many years for an event that lasts just a few weeks. OK, for the sake of argument let's say that the corrupt Greeks messed up and their Games were a financial fiasco... What about Montreal, which was pretty much bankrupted by the 1976 Games, and spent the greater part of three decades trying to climb out of the hole? The article clearly expresses the view that oftentime the Games end up being in the red -thus, Greek mismanagement and 'corruption' are not the problem. It would be good if readers learnt to look below the surface and think (and this for themselves) before jumping to superficial conclusions and posting them.

Frasin66
Frasin66

L'hirondelle

dans la roseraie.

Avec

une

douceur

qui

chante

l'harmonie

de

la pluie en été,

quand

le son

de

la vie rappelle

la

jeunesse et

un

tendre oiseau.

Francesco

Sinibaldi

FrillArtist
FrillArtist

Shocker...spending money recklessly leads to debt. Who knew?

Barolos Gi
Barolos Gi

To clarify things. Hosting Olympics usualy has two budgets. The Operating Budget run by the Organising Committee and the infrustructure-construnction budget run by governments. The first in Athens was a success. a 2b budget ended by having 138m in surplus. the other was screwed. Construction companies played a game with government to do so much that was not needed and the result was to make huge monstrerous venues without an after games plan. Instead of temp venues they builted pernament ones that require lots of money for maintenance. Therefore to summarise, Greeks Organised perfect olympic games within budget. Government played game against greek citizens and overspent on everything they baptised olympic works!

Scotty_A
Scotty_A

Greece simply has itself to blame for its troubles. The problem was not them hosting the Olympics. The issue is that it was like a big wedding that was unnecessary. People go to the Olympics to watch the athletes, not to marvel at the facilities. There is nothing wrong with being humble. Instead the Greeks acted like they were rich and decadent for over a decade. And there is not much sympathy for someone who spends a lot of money and is unable to pay the bills. Going into debt without a plan is just dumb. And the ideas behind the EU and common currency are misguided. Europe's leaders want to pretend they are the US, but their political and economic systems unfortunately lack the characteristics of the US to make the EU and common currency work.

Orwell11
Orwell11

You know nothing about Greece, so you shouldn't be talking.

KATE ADAMS
KATE ADAMS

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But guess what,it turns out they were for REAL, all I had to do was following the steps exposed on this  page  tinyurl.com/newwss

 

Chinga_Tu_Madre
Chinga_Tu_Madre

Hey, how about we cut all the Olympic events to it's original sports when the Greeks started it?

ULURU
ULURU

 Yeah - and everyone should be naked, like in Ancient Greece. Works for me.

Ben IncaHutz
Ben IncaHutz

Why anyone would build expensive buildings with such a singular purpose is beyond me.  Did the ancients move the location of games every 4 years . .no. Then why do we? Have them on one location and it will solve alot of problems. Who really cares about the games anyways? Do I care who can run the fastest at any given time? No.

trainspotter319
trainspotter319

Isn't that a little like bemoaning the purchase of a house during the height of the bubble only to regret the decision when its value drops and you get laid off?  Hindsight is 20/20. What I haven't seen are any numbers indicating how much money was pumped into the Greek economy during the games and what the benefits were. It is very easy to only look at the debit side of the ledger. Should the Olympic committee more thoroughly vet applications, and include some form of risk analysis to the equation? Certainly. Should countries take a real look at total cost versus projected benefits. Absolutely. 

jkaravidas
jkaravidas

i dont live in Athens and i was one of the few that didn't want the games in Athens in the first place. Billions of euros were spend in Athens in big fiestas while the countryside of Greece was left to rotten, but all of us are paying the price today just because some rich Greeks wanted to make a show of themselves and some incompetent and corrupt politicians wanted to snatch money and votes. Modern Olympic games have nothing to do with what started in ancient Olympia thousands of years ago, it has turned into a  million dollar enterprise and the ideas that led its organization in the first place are forgoten. Athens was a big failure but seems that nobody wants to admit that fact.

Maggie R. Freda
Maggie R. Freda

Therefore to summarise, Greeks Organised perfect olympic games within budget. Government...MayorMoney.blogspot.com

GilmoreChristina
GilmoreChristina

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charles551
charles551

what she does not tell you is that she is an internet whore.

GilmoreChristina
GilmoreChristina

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GilmoreChristina
GilmoreChristina

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GilmoreChristina
GilmoreChristina

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Christopher Kidwell
Christopher Kidwell

The problem is that with the 'competing' for the Olympic games, you have a problem with countries intentionally understating how much the facilities will cost and overstating how good of facilities they can build with X dollars.

We need to get rid of the competition system in it's entirety, it just doesn't work in the real world.

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