By Russ Baker
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 25, 2004; Page D01
ATHENS -- Worriers cite terrorists, construction delays, traffic
chaos and other mega-problems as potential obstacles for the Summer
Olympics. But if the gargantuan Athens Games go down the tubes, it might
just be on account of the little things that won't. Ladies and gentlemen,
please bear with us as we address the prosaic matter of plumbing.
Greece is unlike Northern Europe, North America and Australia in
many, often charming ways. That's why it remains one of the world's top
tourist destinations. But not all of those ways are quite so endearing.
For example, while most of the developed world flushes used toilet tissue,
in Greece it is typically placed in a waste receptacle next to the toilet.
That unintentionally ecological approach, however, will be a
surprise to many visitors, if a recent unscientific survey is any
indication. Although warnings are not unknown (one restaurant posted a
sign depicting a grimacing toilet and the admonition "Do not place Papper
in the Toilette"), most establishments seem not to have considered this
potential disaster, with just four months and counting before the opening
ceremonies. That means millions and millions of ill-advised flushes, and
untold consequences to Athens's ancient pipes, which, if not as old as the
Acropolis, are still badly in need of modernization. How this will play
out, especially given the frequency with which Americans and other
prodigal consumers already clog more modern equipment through wasteful
practices, is one big unknown.
If going is a challenge, so is coming and going. The same street
name can be found in multiple places in Athens, with some incarnations no
more than a couple of blocks long. Don't count on cabbies to be helpful --
often they have no idea, and even if they do, very few speak another
language. (On the other hand, most taxis are gleamingly new and blissfully
inexpensive.) Greeks are always glad to give directions, though they pride
themselves more on their willingness to help than on their willingness to
admit they have no idea how to get somewhere.
Hair dryer fans might note the questionable ability of the
electrical grid to handle huge numbers of gadget-happy visitors. Add to
this the air-conditioning pressures of August -- which, thanks to global
warming, is trending even hotter and wetter than in typically unbearable
summers of Athens past.
The sorts of peripheral disasters waiting to happen only compound
the challenges facing the official event. Although many sporting
facilities, a new airport and spacious highways have been built, a lot of
effort has gone into cosmetic efforts with mainly propaganda value --
exhibits, signs, depictions of the ancient games. As a result, work has
been completed on fewer than half of the competition facilities, a topic
of frequent discussion in the Greek media.
"Greeks are famous for procrastinating as long as possible, and then
rushing frantically at the last minute," says Costis Chlouverakis, a
physician and writer. "The Olympics were announced in 1997, but they
didn't do anything for years. Of course they are not ready."
A favorite joke circulating on the Internet shows the Greeks
half-ready for the 2004 games and the Chinese already done for 2008. Even
the Athens city Web site remains "under construction."
Outside the Olympic venues, the city seems an odd mix of frenetic
remodeling and indifference. A week spent walking and driving through
Athens revealed the kind of chaos and lackadaisical fix-it projects that
have long characterized the city. For every stylish new boîte that
has opened, one sees dozens of properties where work appears to have
barely begun. Many proprietors of hotels, restaurants and the like appear
to have only recently realized the profit potential of 1.4 million
visitors. The city hasn't had major hotel construction in ages, though a
number of large new hostelries are racing toward completion with good
incentive: Prices for superior-quality rooms will average a little under
$1,000 a night. The lodging mainstay, hundreds of small hotels, are busy
getting face- and wallet-lifts. One little pension with tiny rooms plans
to raise its rates from about $60 a night to near $300. And to handle the
massive influx, the authorities plan to enlist a number of cruise ships,
creating floating hotels.
Some roads appear to be getting their first rejuvenation in 150
years -- unearthing past construction indiscretions. One controversy
erupted when a woman noticed the words "Dearly Beloved" on unsettled
paving stones. An initial visit to an excavated 5th century street in the
heart of the touristic Plaka area near the Acropolis found the pavement
littered with a prodigious amount of dog droppings. Five days later, these
canine contributions to the city's ambiance remained undisturbed.
Security concerns are clearly paramount, but perhaps the biggest
challenge of all will be simple communication. The term "it's all Greek to
me" was coined for a reason. Many signs use only the Greek alphabet.
Spoken and nodded Greek can be confusing, too, for the uninitiated. For
example, the word for "yes," ne, sounds a lot like its opposite,
and the word for "no," okhee, sounds a lot like "okay." Lifting the
head vertically, something like American culture's affirmative nod, is
Something like our wave goodbye is their "come here," and what looks
like "come here" is actually goodbye.
If Athens is not quite ready for the Olympics, the people of Athens
certainly are -- ready to evacuate, that is. Athenians, who never need
much excuse to escape their overcrowded, foliage-deficient city for the
beauty and tranquillity of the Greek islands, may not stick around to
enjoy this latest incarnation of the quadrennial sporting spectacle that
their ancestors created. "We're all leaving a month before the Games, and
returning a month after," says Michalis Papayiannakis, a member of the
Well, not everyone. When authorities announced openings for 42,000
Olympics "volunteers," 160,000 people applied -- many of them Greeks. Even
so, one local skeptic warned, "Check how many actually show up. Greeks are
not volunteers. We have an expression, 'You can get free cheese only in
the mousetrap.' "
Despite all the problems, it's too early to write off the Athens
Olympics as a disaster in the making. For all their tendencies to
procrastination, the worry-bead-twirling Greeks can be resourceful in a
pinch. Before the World Athletic Championship in 1997, authorities
envisioned a soothing display of greenery outside the airport to welcome
arriving tourists. But trucked-in pine trees did not get planted; half
died in the parching heat, half were apparently taken home by airport
staff. With one month remaining before the event, staff frantically began
sowing flowers and watering them with great diligence. What the crowds saw
on their arrival was a beautiful garden that looked as though it had been
"You see," says one typically philosophical Athenian, "we're