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Greeks Hope It Was All Worth It

The Games' legacy includes massive debt as well as modernized infrastructure.

August 30, 2004|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — In the shadow of the $100-million judo-and-wrestling stadium on the northern outskirts of Athens, the other side of Greece's Olympic story plays out.

Dimosthenis Bazopoulos, a 76-year-old retiree, and his sick wife live on about $6.50 a day in a prefab home within eyeshot of the Ano Liossia stadium. He is waiting for the government to increase his pension so he can pay his electrical bills and still afford bread every day.

In her home by the stadium, where the groan of spectators' buses has routinely drowned out family conversation, Mina Danos, 33, says she sometimes has to beg because there is no work for people at her bottom level of the Greek economy -- "Olympics or no."

The Games are over, and Greek officials are congratulating themselves on a job more or less well done. But now begins what Greeks are calling the Olympic Hangover. Will the dizzyingly high costs be outweighed by a legacy of improved image, enhanced skills and more tourists? Will Greece's enormous investment pay off?

Huge cost overruns have left Greece heavily in debt and will force postponement of major social programs and tax reform, the foundation of the 5-month-old government of Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis.

Failure to deliver could have a heavy political cost for Karamanlis. The government is also saddled with 40 stadiums and sports venues that glistened during the Games but may prove to be white elephants; there is no government plan for how to use the installations, and the price of upkeep will be exorbitant.

At the same time, holding an Olympics without major terrorist incident or other disaster and in defiance of low worldwide expectations has enhanced Greek self-confidence and, Greeks believe, lifted them from second-class status, sealing their transformation into a First World state and resolving some of the struggle over their Hellenic identity.

The optimists here hope that a new work and business ethic -- clearly in evidence during the Games -- will become permanent and that Greece will be seen as something more than ancient ruins, glorious sun-drenched beaches and white-washed seafront cottages.

"Greeks have shown they are no longer the poor, distant relative," said Loukas Tsoukalis, an economist and head of a major Athens think tank. "They have shown they are capable of delivering a pretty well-organized project, one of the most difficult in the world. Whether the investment will pay off is totally impossible to answer."

The full cost to Greece of staging the Olympics is still unknown. Officially, the government Finance Ministry has estimated the price tag at 7 billion euros, or $8.4 billion, but some private analysts say it could be closer to 10 billion euros -- more than twice the amount budgeted. Greece's debt stands at nearly 5% of its gross domestic product, one of the largest in Europe -- in a nation already suffering high inflation and unemployment.

Theodoros Roussapoulos, the information minister, said lowering taxes and spending more on social programs, including education, remain top priorities for the government, but would have to be delayed two or three years because of Greece's new financial reality.

The government will move ahead with an austerity program that includes reducing the public sector, which accounts for more than a third of all jobs. Wages and other benefits will probably be capped. Roussapoulos acknowledged that it would be difficult to ask Greeks to tighten their belts so soon after so much Olympics-related spending.

For Bazopoulos, the pensioner, and Danos, the woman who has to beg, none of this is good news.

"It is not likely they will give us poor people anything," Bazopoulos said, standing on the concrete patio of his small home, under the shade of a wide-bough Mediterranean pine. "They'll just let us die."

A lifelong supporter of the ruling New Democracy Party, Bazopoulos said his electricity bills had gone up sixfold in recent months and his pension hadn't kept up. If he didn't get relief, he said, he would never vote for the party again.

Bazopoulos said that to his surprise, he rather enjoyed the way the Olympics transformed his neighborhood. Many people passed through an area that is far from the beaten track. But he sees no long-term benefit.

Danos said the Olympics were irrelevant for her. Even though she could practically touch the stadium from her family's dilapidated front stoop, neither she nor any of her relatives could afford to go inside.

"For the big people in Greece, the Olympics have been a very good thing," said Danos, whose family belongs to the ethnic minority commonly known as Gypsies. "For us, it's no big deal. We don't have money to eat, much less go to an event."

Despite such disgruntlement, Karamanlis and his conservative party, whose election in March unseated the entrenched Socialist party, enjoy some leeway because they remain relatively popular, analysts say. They noted that the ruling party did well in a European Union parliamentary vote in June.

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