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The Great Greek Gamble

As much of the world watched the closing ceremonies of the Olympic Games in Athens earlier this month, we watched with eyes half-shut – fearing any number of potential disasters we’d been almost expecting for months. A terrorist attack; a structural collapse of the stadium; a surveillance blimp falling from the sky. But with the end of the ceremonies and the final congratulations from the International Olympic Committee, a collective sigh of relief was issued around the world. But nowhere was this sense of relief more tangible than inside the host country. Having passed the initial test; that is, the actual event; Greece now faces what may well be a tougher challenge. With a price tag that ran billions over budget, the financial viability of the games will be proved only with time and the influx of tourist and investment money. Counting on the publicity generated by the games to provide economic solvency to the massive endeavor is a risky gamble. But the Greeks are a people known (at least stereotypically) for a remarkable ability to roll with the punches; likely coming up with a glass of ouzo in their free hand.

The Games
Despite the fears over incomplete facilities, poor organization and the general pessimism reflected in the world media, the Olympic Games were an unqualified success. Outside of the assault on Brazilian marathon runner Vanderlei de Lima, security and organization of the games appeared to be without any major flaws.

Even the bizarre attack on de Lima served to remind us, by its very lack of severity, how much worse things “could have been,” and how impossible total security would be. As it was, spectators and athletes expressed largely rave reviews of the events and their stay in Athens. Here, at least, it seems that the hopes of the Greek authorities – that participants and visitors would leave Athens as “ambassadors of Greece” – were fulfilled.

The Outlook
Greece has always enjoyed a favorable perception among tourists; particularly with Europeans. Only two to three hours flight from most major European airports, the sun-drenched nation has long been a favorite getaway of Germans and Scandinavians. But despite its membership in the European Union, it’s no secret that the other member nations continue to regard Greece as a somewhat backward, not-quite-fully-European sibling. That is, until this year’s expansion of the EU. With the addition of nations like Latvia, Malta and Slovakia, Greece is no longer the blackest of the black sheep. And this may prove to be the saving grace for the plan to capitalize on the success of the games. Tourist dollars and euros are clearly needed. But further impact has to come from foreign investment – and those funds will come in only with the acceptance of the country as a stable, modern first-world economy by its peers. It’s yet to be seen whether the publicity generated by the Olympics will be sufficient to influence this perception.

Speaking to his nation in a televised address following the successful conclusion of the games, Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis called the Games “a watershed” and an investment in Greece’s future. In a speech rife with praise for the governmental agencies and the thousands of volunteers who pulled off the event despite the doubts of the international community, Karamanlis expressed the ambitions of the country, “At this time, we Greeks, with our collective self-discipline and personal contribution, showed not only that we are good hosts, but we proved that we are ready to turn the page. A new chapter has begun for our society.”  But as Greece now heads into the tourist low-season of fall and winter, we’ll have to wait until this time next year to see if Mr. Karamanlis’ words hold true.

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