ATHENS -- This city has a collective case of the jitters. Fanni Palli-Petralia, undersecretary of State for Sport and Youth, calls it "Tokyo Fever." Posters, flags and badges adorning the shops, streets and citizens of the Greek capital tell the rest of the story: "Athens '96 -- The Golden Olympics."
The choice of venue for the centenary of the modern Olympics will be made Tuesday in Tokyo. And suddenly people are waking up to the idea that Athens might, just might, not get it.
Four years, two years, even 12 months ago, that would have been unthinkable here. After all, the Greeks invented the Olympic Games, back in 776 B.C. And when they were revived, albeit at the behest of a Frenchman, Baron Pierre de Coubertain, they were held in Athens, in 1896. How could Athenians be denied the right to stage the centenary Games?
The Greeks could not have started with a better advocate. Melina Mercouri was as electric and vivacious a minister of culture as she was the unforgettable character she played in "Never on Sunday" 30 years ago. If Mercouri could not get the Elgin Marbles back from the British Museum, she would surely get the Games back to Greece.
She toured the world lecturing, scolding, demanding, even pleading that the Games come back to Athens. But when the Papandreou government fell last year -- prey to banking scandals and the aging prime minister's very public affair with a former airline hostess -- Mercouri fell with it.
The cancer she also was suffering from at the time seems to have been successfully treated in the United States, and she is back lobbying, if not as minister, then as a famous Greek, such as composers Mikos Theodorakis and Vangelis Papanassiou ("Chariots of Fire") and singers Nana Mouskouri and Demis Roussos, who will perform at concerts in Tokyo preceding the voting on Tuesday.
But mindful of the charm factor, when it comes to vote catching from the 89 mostly aging and self-elected members of the International Olympic Committee, the new government of Constantin Mitsotakis has confined Palli-Petralia to the role previously played by Mercouri.
It has not been lost on Palli-Petralia that, ever since the "private enterprise" Games in Los Angeles in 1984 ($200 million profit), making money has been seen to be a priority of the Olympic movement.
The underminister of State also realizes that not everyone is happy at this depreciation of the Olympic ideal. So she has wheeled in some impressive allies. Like Lucian, the ancient historian, who, in his "Anacharsis" reminded readers that into the branches of the olive wreath (the victor's crown at ancient Olympia) are woven "all the eternal qualities men will fight for: Democracy, freedom, human dignity, equality between countries and between men and women."
Palli-Petralia is certainly using a little ministerial license on the last score, since women were not allowed into ancient Olympia, under pain of death.
But she quickly switches into Herodotus's story of the Persian king, Xerxes, stopping in Thessaly on his way to Athens to do battle. Some captives tell him the Greeks are staging the Olympic Games. When told that an olive wreath is the only prize, Xerxes replies, stunned: "Great God, we have come to do battle with men who fight for virtue rather than money."
On the face of it, the five cities vying with Athens for the '96 Games should not stand a chance. Atlanta and Toronto have to cope with the fact that the United States and Canada have hosted both winter and summer Olympics in the past 15 years, whereas Melbourne, Australia, had the Games in 1956. Belgrade and Manchester, England, are considered little more than makeweights, whose bids are a good way of buying publicity.
On the Other Hand
But Melbourne spent $5.2 million last year on engaging public relations giant Burston Marsteller. And the U.S. TV networks, which have paid so heavily for Olympic coverage in the recent past ($300 million each for Calgary and Seoul) would put up persuasive money for the prime-time programming that Atlanta and Toronto could provide.
Athens, on the other hand, can argue that the federation of Europe in 1992 is destined to produce by 1996 a homogeneous television market that could equal that of the United States or Japan.
A late scare has come with events in Eastern Europe, thrusting a unified Berlin to the forefront of the race for the Games in the year 2000. With the 1992 Olympics already destined for Barcelona, IOC attempts to take the Games to different continents each time would be short-circuited for 1996.
But what is ultimately frightening the Athenians is Athens itself. For below the gap-toothed remains of the Acropolis teems a polluted, overcrowded city, with inadequate transportation, poor security and a lifestyle far removed from the high ideals of ancient Greece.
Attending a major sporting event, the Mobil Track and Field Grand Prix finals last week, 200 journalists from around the world found that the telephone system could not cope with their computer technology. International televison personnel related similar problems. And having braved the Athens traffic, promises that a new thruway system, linking any of four Olympic venues with another in 12 minutes, seems difficult to believe.
When much of the city's population returned from summer holidays last week, the "nefos" or atmospheric pollution, immediately rose above the danger limit. And that is with a traffic system that already bans half the available cars (based on odd/even number plates) from the city center on alternate days.
'We Are Optimistic'
Paul Niilend, a spokesman for the Athens Olympic Bid Committee, recognizes the problems. "We realize that the international community and the IOC are concerned that we might not have the means to stage the Games properly," he said. "But, based on the project undertaken, and the evidence now available to the contrary, we are optimistic that the IOC will decide in our favor."
A $3 billion investment program, including a new international airport, underground railway and highway system (that would be used only by the "Olympic family" during the Games) is underway, with half of the money coming from the European Community Regional Fund and the other half from a national lottery.
The biggest plus would be the facilities, 80 percent of which are already in use. The Spiridon Louis stadium, named after the first modern Greek winner of the marathon in 1896, is magnificent. It may not boast the marble of the original Panathenaikon stadium in the center of Athens that hosted the first modern Games, nor does it have the aura of the field at Olympia in Elis, where the dream was born almost 3,000 years ago.
But it is as fine a stadium as anywhere in the world. Seating 80,000, it is classically simple, white stone, open to the Aegean sky. It was used for the European track and field championships in 1982, and will play host to the Mediterranean Games next year, as will an equally impressive 20,000-seat indoor stadium for basketball, boxing, gymnastics, etc., near the sailing venue at Piraeus, the Athens port.
Palli-Petralia left Athens 10 days ago for last-minute lobbying in Tokyo. Her last word before departing was one she hoped would be appropriate both next Tuesday and in 1996:
"Athinaze." To Athens! Tomorrow: Toronto Pat Butcher is based in London and writes frequently on European sports.