The Greek concept of "preparedness" is plainly different from ours. Here is the Greek way: Just Wednesday on the grounds of the Athens Olympic Sports Complex, you could see 10 construction workers lying on a shady patch of grass, shirtless and dozing with their arms thrown across their eyes, their hardhats resting beside them.
Is Greece ready for the Olympics? As far as they're concerned, yes. In the Olympic Stadium, technicians tested the sound system, playing a taped introduction to the Opening Ceremonies on a repetitive loop. "The Great Moment has arrived," a solemn voice intoned, over and over again.
Yet meanwhile in the broad plaza outside, huge spools of coaxial cable were still stacked together, waiting to be unrolled. Electricians hovered in manholes below the ground, splicing wires. Piles of seats were wrapped in plastic, yet to be installed in some of the venues. The fountains were filled with dust and grit from all the construction, and maintenance workers tried to sweep them out with brooms.
The Greek Olympic effort has been portrayed as disorganized and riven by delays, cost overruns and labor disputes. It's also been portrayed as possibly even dangerous from a security standpoint. But why should Greece have to be judged by a foreign concept of "preparedness?"
What looks to us like a frenzy of disorganization is to Greeks a great national feat. The stadiums are in fact essentially finished -- and they are glorious. White winged roofs lunge into a white-blue sky. "In Greece we've done things our own way, we've prepared the Games our own way," says Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, head of the organizing committee. "If there is a record for underestimating a city, the record is about us."
It's devoutly hoped by organizers that this Olympics will vault Greece from a second world country into a first world country. The Olympic construction project has provided Athens with badly needed improvements. Despite predictions of horrific smog and traffic and broken streets, visitors have arrived to find Athens clear-skied and newly paved, with a shimmering liquid gem of the Aegean as a backdrop, offering some of the most stunningly clean water in Europe. The cultural festival that runs concurrent with the Games is considered a vital showcase: The Greeks are eager to demonstrate that they can take a place among the leaders of the world in art, architecture, technology and commerce. "It's like we've opened a giant door to our future," says Angelopoulos-Daskalaki.
Have Greeks been unfairly judged by foreign standards of preparedness? Perhaps so. Certainly, they have been forced to assume an unfair burden of security "preparedness."
Greece has been asked to meet a standard of "safety" at these Olympics set by at-risk countries who are scared out of their wits, led by the United States. They've been asked to pay the sum of our fears.
It may well be that billion dollar technology is an effective tool against malevolence, and that eventualities dreamed up by international psychopaths can somehow be forestalled by huge expenditures. But Greece shouldn't have to pick up the tab for it alone. We should pay our part. Seven countries have given Greece "advice" on security. But the convulsive problems of the world since 9/11 are not of Greece's making. At the time Athens won the bid to host these Games in 1997, security was estimated to be just a fractional cost. The bill has grown to $1.5 billion, organizers say. That's approaching a quarter of the overall cost of $7 billion for hosting these Games, and it's six times more than was spent on security at the 2000 Games in Sydney. And that debt could well affect just how much of a brilliant future Greece is able to build from these Games.
It's simply not right for a single country to bear the cost. Everyone should split the check, via the International Olympic Committee, which has coffers richer than some multinationals. If security has become a shared concern, and it has, then the price tag and the responsibility for it should also be shared.
"Preparedness" is a virtual obsession at these Olympics: Instead of a stuffed doll, the mascot for the Athens Games ought to be a blimp with an electronic eye. But there is perhaps no sure preventative measure, no way to absolutely guarantee a "safe" Games. And yet Greek organizers have been required to act as if there is. If something goes wrong, there will no doubt be criticism from some quarters of the Greek lack of preparedness. But disaster doesn't run on a time clock. It's a worldwide hazard, and if you want a guarantee, you should never put your shoes on and leave your house. And you certainly shouldn't go to an Olympics.
"Preparedness" is a reassuring concept because it's about deterrence, and deterrence works. But there's no question that some Greeks view security differently, too. American concerns may seem timorous to them, the relentless preoccupation with safety a bit much. The surveillance blimp, for instance, has been a subject of controversy rather than confidence here, called a Big Brother intrusion.
This is a country where small bombs go off fairly regularly as a form of civic protest. A bang in the middle of the night is accounted as a normal event. What might seem hazardous to an American is not to a Greek, who lives in a country where passionate explosiveness seems to be a birthright, and which is bordered by three seas as well as Albania, Bulgaria, Macedonia and Turkey.
While others have doubted and criticized, Greeks are collectively delighted with themselves. Athens 2004 has a chance to be the most meaningful and triumphant Olympics of our lifetime, as well as one of the most hauntingly beautiful. Greeks can now be proud of not just the shards of their history, those ruined columns leaping out of city sidewalks, but of a new city. This makes these Olympics, for all of their so-called problems, impossible to resist. There is the naive sense that nothing bad can happen here -- because all this newness is just too marvelous.