Sat, Jun 05, 2010 - Page 4 News List

FEATURE : Greek financial crisis blamed on 2004 Olympics

IRRATIONAL? Some people say lavish spending on Olympic sites that have since gone unused has led the country to the brink of ruin, but others doubt the numbers

AP , ATHENS

When it comes to overspending, Greece gets the gold medal.

Governments in the Greek capital of Athens haven’t balanced a budget in nearly 40 years, and the country narrowly averted bankruptcy last month before panicky European partners grudgingly put up massive rescue loans.

While many factors are behind the crippling debt crisis, the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens has drawn particular attention.

If not the sole reason for Greece’s financial mess, some point to the Games as at least an illustration of what’s gone wrong in Greece.

Their argument starts with more than a dozen Olympic venues — now vacant, fenced off and patrolled by private security guards. Stella Alfieri, an outspoken anti-Games campaigner, said they marked the start of Greece’s irresponsible spending binge.

“I feel vindicated, but it’s tragic for the country ... They exploited feelings of pride in the Greek people, and people profited from that,” said Alfieri, a former member of parliament from a small left-wing party. “Money was totally squandered in a thoughtless way.”

The 2004 Athens Olympics cost nearly US$11 billion by current exchange rates, double the initial budget, and that figure does not include major infrastructure projects rushed to completion at inflated costs. In the months before the Games, construction crews worked around the clock, using floodlights to keep the work going at night.

In addition, the tab for security alone was more than US$1.2 billion.

Six years later, more than half of Athens’ Olympic sites are barely used or empty. The long list of mothballed facilities includes a baseball diamond, a massive man-made canoe and kayak course, and arenas built for unglamorous sports such as table tennis, field hockey and judo.

Don Porter, president of the International Softball Federation, said his organization made an offer several years ago to maintain the Olympic softball venue and use it to host events, but never received a reply.

“The softball venue is still standing, except it is overgrown with weeds, unmaintained and unused,” Porter said in an e-mail. “Of course it is not only the Olympics that caused Greece’s current problems, but it probably added to it.”

Deals to convert several venues into recreation sites — such as turning the canoe-kayak venue into a water park — have been stalled by legal challenges from residents’ groups and Byzantine planning regulations.

Criticism of the Olympic spending has sharpened in recent weeks, after parliament launched an investigation into allegations that German industrial giant Siemens AG paid bribes to secure contracts ­before the 2004 Games.

A former Greek transport minister has been charged with money laundering after he told the inquiry that he had received more than US$123,000 from Siemens in 1998 as a campaign donation.

International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge said linking the debt crisis to the Games is “unfair.” He said that Athens is still reaping the benefits from its pre-Games overhaul of the city’s transport systems and infrastructure.

“These are things that really leave a very good legacy for the city ... There have been expenses, of course. You don’t build an airport for free,” Rogge told reporters in Lausanne, Switzerland. “Had Athens still been outmoded, the economy would have been much worse probably than it is today.”

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