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ATHENS 2004

Classic Revival of Greek Myths

Speculation and conspiracy theories thrive in the Games' host city

August 29, 2004|Greg Krikorian | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — On the eve of the Olympics, word spread among security officials and journalists that a Middle Eastern man had been stopped trying to board a plane here with a pen that doubled as a tiny gun. Inside the pen was a single .22-caliber bullet.

But at a time when no story was bigger in Greece than making the Games safe from terrorism, no announcement was made that authorities had foiled a plot.

For good reason.

The man, it turned out, was not an Arab extremist but a Greek businessman. The pen-gun was not part of an arsenal but part of his merchandise. And it was empty.

Greece may not have invented mythology, but it's doubtful that any nation did more over the centuries to export it. At the Summer Olympics here, that tradition continued.

Apocryphal tales of terrorist plots or powerful conspiracies have raced through Athens.

To be fair, much of the talk might occur in any Olympic city, especially in this jittery age of global terrorism. Who would be surprised to know that agents had seized a suspicious-looking suitcase sent to the International Broadcast Center? Even if it contained nothing more than cookies. Or that security at Athens International Airport had isolated a package bound for Albania that was leaking a white powder? The powder turned out to be no more dangerous than the cookies.

But in Greece, the tales have been particularly sensational, the truth elusive.

"I would say rumor is a characteristic of our society, there is no question about it," said Theodore Couloumbis, professor emeritus of international relations at the University of Athens. "The rumor was probably invented here. It is like souvlaki [meat, usually roasted lamb, on pita bread]."

Then again, Couloumbis said, rumors aren't always wrong, and Greeks are hardly the only ones who enjoy spreading them.

"Sometimes where there is smoke, there is fire," Couloumbis said. "I have a daughter living in Pennsylvania, not far from New Jersey. And for years there were rumors about [New Jersey] Gov. McGreevey and his sexual preference. Then the man declared he was gay."

Still, there is something different about Greece.

Consider that some Greeks are convinced that a white blimp operated by the Olympic Games security force to keep tabs on venues and other major sites is scanning their every move.

"You see that?" a cabdriver said to his passenger, pointing at the blimp. "There are 150,000 cameras on that ... and they see everything!"

Concern about the blimp was so serious that a group calling itself the Democratic Rally for Individual Rights asked an Athens court to ground the airship, for fear that it could be monitoring private conversations. The court didn't buy it.

Although it had nothing to do with security, the doping scandal that prompted Greece's two champion sprinters, Costas Kenteris and Katerina Thanou, to withdraw from the Games also was awash in rumors that the pair, medal winners in the last Olympics, had been framed.

The reason? The International Olympic Committee and world media wouldn't stand for the possibility that two homegrown heroes might again win some of track and field's most coveted medals. So it singled them out for embarrassment without any proof they had used performance-enhancing drugs.

"It is a big hypocrisy," said jeweler Dimitrios Pappas, 52. "We all know who is in charge."

Said an official with one foreign government who, notwithstanding the comment, loves this country: "The Greeks are the biggest conspiracy theorists in the world. It is just a big part of their psychology."

Greeks view that conclusion as simplistic, if not downright suspicious.

"Yes, there are things that are blown out of proportion. But that could happen anywhere," said Notis Papadopoulos, political editor of Ta Nea, one of Greece's newspapers.

A month before the Olympics, Papadopoulos recalled, some of the international media made a big story out of the explosion of a gas canister in a trash can outside a police station near the center of Athens but far from any venues.

"Everybody said, 'What kind of security is this?' " Papadopoulos recalled. "The whole thing was blown out of proportion. We have a tradition, a long tradition, of Greek leftists doing this in the country. That is just how they behave. So we knew it was no international terrorism."

But it became a story.

So did the purported arrest in Athens of 10 members of a suspected Al Qaeda terrorist cell from Kosovo just days before the opening ceremony. The Greek Ministry of Public Order has denied any such arrests. Some U.S. counter-terrorism experts assisting in security here also called the story baseless.

But Papadopoulos was not so sure. His newspaper, he said, had police sources confirming that Greek security officials had been monitoring the activities of five or six Muslims as "persons of interest." And although he said he could not speak to what U.S. officials might say, he put little stock in the Greek government's denials.

"That is, of course, the way the ministry answers," he said with a grin.

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