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With Games, Greece Goes for Broke

"Athens's reasons were very different. They have accelerated 20 years of development into 20 months."

For Athens, which lost its bid for the 1996 Summer Games, the Olympics brought a new airport, new highways, new trains, new trams, new subway lines, new sports venues and, Angelopoulos-Daskalaki said, a new confidence. A thick cloud of pollution that used to cover the city and blacken its buildings before the Games were awarded in 1997 is gone.

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"We've seen projects come out of the ground that were needed for 10, 15 or 20 years," Angelopoulos-Daskalaki said. "Because of the Games, we decided to create them. Now, all of these projects have changed completely the face of the Attica area . . . changed completely the lives of the citizens."

The prestige associated with pulling off a successful Games motivated even 19th-century Athens, then the center of a bankrupt country seeking political recognition. The 1964 Games, which featured a virtual reconstruction of Tokyo and cost nearly $2 billion, affirmed Tokyo's evolution into an elite city.

Seoul in 1988, Barcelona in 1992 and Atlanta in 1996 sought, and attained, similar rises. But the gains have often sent bottom lines plunging. The financial windfall that hit the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles, which took advantage of existing venues as well as television and commercial exposure to make a $223 million profit, rarely has been duplicated.

Montreal's Olympic stadium was nicknamed "The Big Owe," mocking the billion-dollar debt that drained the economy for years after the 1976 Games. Barcelona found itself invigorated, beautified and in debt to the tune of $20 million. Sydney, which held the highly successful 2000 Summer Games, has been left with several taxpayer-funded venues with little post-Games use.

Some Greeks fear a similar economic hangover. In May, Greece's public works minister, George Souflias, expressed doubts about whether Athens should have bid for the Games, which have run nearly $2 billion over budget to a tab of at least $7.2 billion, according to recent estimates that will be revised in the coming days. Athens locals have deserted the city in droves as Olympians have moved in. Ticket sales have fallen well short of expectations. A swatch of graffiti on a wall near a bus stop on a major Athens boulevard reads "[Expletive] Olymbic Gams."

In an interview this week, Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis said Greek pride and enthusiasm had begun to soar but acknowledged that "the city went through, as all of us did, periods of questioning, agonizing and skepticism, even."

International Olympic Committee member Dick Pound, a former IOC vice president, said this week that Greece was paying the price for its own sloppy work. Athens fell so far behind on its construction projects, the IOC threatened several years ago to take the Games elsewhere.

"They dithered for three years," Pound said. "They turned seven-year projects into four-year projects. All late construction is expensive construction."

Though the IOC is eager to award the Olympics to cities and nations that have never held them, some wonder how developing nations could ever bear the cost. Beijing, the site of the next Summer Games in 2008, has plans to build 15 venues, a host of roads and a new airport. Estimated cost to China's communist government: $33 billion.

Zarnowski and some other Olympic experts suggest that the Summer Games -- more than twice the size of the Winter Games -- be rotated among just a handful of large cities, but it's a proposal most Greeks solidly reject.

"I would be very sad to acknowledge that only five or six cities in the world are allowed the privilege because of financial constraints to organize [the Games]," Karamanlis said. "I think that would be a serious blow to the Olympic spirit."

U.S. Olympic Committee President Peter Ueberroth, the former head of the Los Angeles Olympic organizing committee, said Greece has proven the Games can be managed, even by smaller nations.

"The first gold medal, it's been won already," he said. "It's been won by the organizing committee and the people in Greece. They have defied all of the people in this room, and most reasonable people, who thought they wouldn't be ready."

"The cost is and was considerable," Karamanlis said. "The investment not only in funds but in energy, time and effort was very big. But I'm optimistic that the medium- and long-term efforts will be fully worth it. . . . Mainly because it's a golden opportunity . . . for the rest of the world to make acquaintance with Greece as it is today."

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