(AFP) – Jul 30, 2008
ATHENS (AFP) — A world of fans and an army of critics are counting the days before China's long-awaited launch of the Beijing Olympics on August 8 but for previous hosts Athens, Games' indifference is the rule.
A lingering hangover from the 2004 Olympics, low medal expectations in Beijing and a spate of demoralising doping scandals in recent months have combined to sap interest in the event, observers say.
"I doubt many Greeks would know when the Games start in Beijing if we asked them," says Thomas Gerakis, a pollster at opinion company Marc SA.
"It makes sense that spirits are lower this time round," says Serafeim Kotrotsos, the former spokesman of the Athens 2004 organising committee who now works for Greek daily Eleftheros Typos.
"These are not our Games...and the recent doping cases have cooled interest among the Greek public," he told AFP.
Another Athens Olympics insider, who spoke on condition of anonymity, argued that Greeks had a "Games overdose" in 2004, when the agony of last-minute preparations and daily bickering among organisers was replaced by intense pride over a widely acclaimed Olympics and 16 medals won by Greek athletes.
"Greeks were swept with enthusiasm in 2004 but four years later they have other things to worry about," he said. "Like whether they have enough money to go on holiday."
Greek medal expectations are low this year with only triple-jumper Hrysopiyi Devetzi, the men's basketball and waterpolo teams and judoka Ilias Iliadis eyeing a podium finish.
For years, Greek fans had been accustomed to medal hauls from athletics and weightlifting where a "Dream Team" of strongmen had brought home an astonishing 12 medals, five of them gold, in the last four Olympics.
But Greek weightlifting spectacularly fell from grace in April when nearly the entire Beijing squad was eliminated after testing positive to the banned steroid Methyltrienolone.
Worse still, the architect of over a decade of Greek success, coach Christos Iakovou, was disgraced and prosecuted as the mastermind behind the importation of illegal substances given to the athletes.
Within three months, swimmer Yiannis Drymonakos and sprinter Dimitris Regas had also tested positive for the same steroid while an unidentified Greek Olympic boxer also fell foul of testing two weeks ago.
Drymonakos' ousting was a heavy blow to Greece's medal hopes as the 24-year-old had broken the European 200m butterfly record in March.
Not only was Greek sport tainted by the recurring drug cheat finds but yet another doping controversy -- the four-year saga of Greek sprinter Katerina Thanou dating from the Athens Games -- was also in the news this month.
Having served a two-year suspension for missing three doping tests prior to the 2004 Games, Thanou last week made known her intention to compete in Beijing after narrowly meeting the qualification requirements in mid-July.
But her decision reopened a debate within the International Olympic Committee, which feels it has unfinished business with the Greek sprinter and will decide this weekend on whether to permit her participation.
Four years after the Games, the Greeks are also still grappling with the bricks-and-mortar legacy of 15 sports and media sites built for the competition.
A handful were remodified for concerts and sports events, but most have seen only sporadic use and several have been under lock and key since the Games.
A judo hall that cost over 80 million euros to build is still in disuse as authorities ponder how to turn it into an arts academy, while a 50-million-euro weightlifting hall will now be turned into university accommodation.
Hellenic Olympic Properties, the state company that manages the Olympic venues portfolio, says most other facilities have now been leased to private investors and will see use as leisure and shopping centres.
"This is the graceless period when the tenders are over and the investors are trying to obtain operation permits," company chairman Constantinos Mattalas told AFP, arguing that several facilities should be open by next summer.
The leases have lessened the drain on Greek public finances, reducing the annual cost of venue upkeep to around 20 million euros from 100 million three years ago.
Mattalas declined to give exact figures on how much cash the leases bring in but insists it covers venue maintenance and the company's own expenses.
The Athens 2004 Games cost around 13 billion euros, including an estimated one billion euros spent on securing the first Olympics held after the Al-Qaeda attacks on the United States in September 2001.
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