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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Athens 2004 Olympics: A Return to Origins With A Massive Cleanup

Air Date: Week of

The 1998 winter Olympics are about to kick off in Nagano, Japan. But in Athens, Greece, all eyes are on 2004. Athenian planners promise the games will be a success. But the noxious pollution cloud known as NEFOS (NEFF-os) might get in the way. This blanket of smog that hangs over Athens much of the year is at its worst in summer, when the games are to be held. And it's just one of several environmental problems the Greeks face as they prepare to turn Athens into the “city of the century.” Alexa Dvorson reports.


CURWOOD: The 1998 Winter Olympics are about to kick off in Nagano, Japan.
But in Athens, Greece, all eyes are on the year 2004. Athenian planners promise the Games will be a success, but the noxious pollution cloud known as Nefos might get in the way. This blanket of smog that hangs over Athens much of the year is at its worse in the summer, when the Games are to be held. And it's just one of several environmental problems the Greeks face as they prepare to turn Athens into the City of the Century.
Alexa Dvorson reports.

(Greek music, clapping and shouting)

DVORSON: It's easy to get caught up in the Greek spirit of celebrating life, liberty, and the pursuit of a parking place in Athens. This land prides itself as the birthplace of democracy and the Olympic Games. So Athenians had a lot of celebrating to do when the International Olympic Committee chose their city over Cape Town, Buenos Aires, Rome, and Stockholm, to host the Games in 2004. Of all these cities, Athens could easily win a gold medal for the worst traffic jams, dirtiest air, and most littered streets. But the way my guide Effie Tsiotsu describes it, that was the last thing on Athenians' minds when the decision was announced.

TSIOTSU: Until six o'clock in the morning people were dancing and kissing each other. They had lighted up the whole town. They were eating and they were drinking wine and beer. It was incredible.

DVORSON: So when the party was over, did people wake up with a hangover the next day and say Ugh, we have a lot to do in the city. It's the dirtiest capitol in Europe. It's the noisiest. We have a terrible pollution problem. The metro isn't even finished yet.

TSIOTSU: Mm hm. Listen, I think the public is not worried about that.
(Laughs) Only the government is, to tell you the truth.

DVORSON: But so is the Citizens' Initiative Against the Olympics in Athens, a group concerned with the city's urban curses. An unfinished metro project that's been in the works since 1959. An undersized airport. And insufficient lodging for more than 200,000 people expected to attend the games. In a report undermining Athens as a candidate city, the Citizens' Initiative predicts that thousands of visitors will have to stay in accommodations 60 to 100 miles outside the city. But the biggest concern for Gerasimos Sklavanos, one of the authors of the report, is the green factor.

SKLAVANOS: [Speaks in Greek] TRANSLATOR: The installations for the Games will replace the few green spaces we have, which I find upsetting. Athens has less green area than any other city in Europe. And secondly, although Athens is on the water, it was built in such a way that it's almost completely cut off from the sea. There is only one access point to the water, and it's there that all the buildings for the Olympics will be constructed. So that means the city will be totally cut off from the sea with all the settlements.

(Woman's voice, through speaker, amidst traffic and ambient conversation: "This is a normal weekday, but the traffic hasn't started yet. We are entering now Singros Avenue, the avenue that connects Athens with the sea directly. Right in front of us, where our boat today is going to be docked, is Faliron, F-A-L-I-R-O-N, Faliron. It was the harbor of ancient Athens after the sixth century BC. But Faliron is a big open wide...")

DVORSON: The Faliron coastal zone is where nearly half of the Olympic events will take place. More than 70% of the sports facilities have already been built. But to accommodate rowing, canoeing, and kayaking events, about 625 acres of 2 coastal wetland areas of Attica, the provincial region surrounding Athens, will be flooded. Local residents of these areas are not pleased, not least because migrating bird populations will be affected. Panagiotis Latsoudis of the Hellenic Ornithological Society is disappointed that the planners of the Games present an ecological vision of the Olympics that doesn't hold up.

LATSOUDIS: There is attention in many subjects but not totally. If they are going to build this accommodation area in Athens, they could build it in another place and not in the most important coastal wetland in Attica.
It is not very easy to accept that, because in order to have a good proposal, they'd say that they have already asked the environmental organization in Greece about their plans, and that was a lie. A big lie.

DVORSON: But Emilia Yerulano, municipal counselor to the Mayor of Athens, pays no attention to the critics.

YERULANO: First of all, these people are a very, very, very small majority. Minority I mean (laughs). That is 96% of Greeks are for the Olympic Games.

DVORSON: Even outside Athens.

YERULANO: Everywhere.

(Traffic sounds and music, a voice-over)

DVORSON: And everywhere you look are taxis. Athens has an estimated 17,000 of them, plus over a million private cars. Over 40% of the entire Greek population lives in the capitol. Even though the number of cars allowed on any given day is split between odd and even numbered license plates to reduce congestion, traffic jams are still among Europe's worst.
So it's hard to imagine there'd be much more room for 200,000 Olympic visitors and 15,000 athletes to get around.

(Woman's voice over on loudspeaker amidst traffic and ambient voices: "I'm sorry for the excavations you see right here to your left, and the excavations that go all over the city of Athens. These have to do with the subway, with the underground. We have...")

DVORSON: Part of the 2004 environmental vision is the extinction of Athens' traffic jams with an expanded metro system to be completed in 2 years' time, along with a planned ring road to connect all the Olympic facilities. But will the improvements help clear the streets. George Vakoyiannis is an engineer for the Athens metro project.

VAKOYIANNIS: The main problem is the private cars, not only the taxis, and most of the cars have only one person inside, the driver. And we are not using the public transports.

DVORSON: If people use it and it does contribute to a decline in the use of cars in this very congested city, what will happen to Nefos?

VAKOYIANNIS: Nefos will disappear. At least 80%.

DVORSON: It's true that Nefos, the toxic smog cloud that hangs over Athens, is less severe than it used to be, but people are still hospitalized for cardiac and respiratory problems on Nefos's bad days, usually in summer. If one of those bad days occurs during the Olympics, the athletes will be in for a rude surprise.

(Construction noises)

DVORSON: On a clear day it's all the more apparent that city planning in Athens is an oxymoron. A highly respected travel guide refers to this 4,000- year-old city as a jungle of concrete. From the air, the sprawl of buildings looks like a spilled box of Lego toys. According to The Insight Guide to Athens, the Greek capitol doesn't cater to tourists and doesn't pretend to exist for anyone other than Athenians. But Dmitris Tziotis, a strategist for the 2004 Committee, believes in the vision of a greener, quieter Athens, that will make the Games a success.

TZIOTIS: There are some significant changes that are taking place in this country and this city. And I believe through the great projects that will be ready by 2001, Athens will be the city that we all dream of.

(Women shouting: "Yee-hoo!" Wind instruments and drums play amidst clapping)

DVORSON: It's unclear whether the dream of the 2004 Olympic Committee will be realized under deadline pressure. Optimists say the countdown to complete the new airport, the metro system, the Olympic Village, and the ring road are just the kind of impetus Greece needs to make good on longstanding unfinished development projects. But sports writer Philipos Sirigos of the Eleftherotypia newspaper, disagrees.

SIRIGOS: [Speaks in Greek] TRANSLATOR: This is a ridiculous claim, because it's like the Greek state cannot do something for its citizens. They need a big thing like the Olympics to get them moving. If this is considered legitimate, it's like recognizing that Greece is a country of the Third World.

(Waves and surf)

DVORSON: It's still difficult to assess what impact the 2004 Olympic Games may ultimately have on Athens' environment. But one hint might be found in a quote from the Insight Travel Guide. In somewhat mocking admiration of Greece's improvisational way of life, the Guide notes, "In Athens, nothing is certain, except that the future promises to be as disorganized as the present."

(Celebratory music continues)

DVORSON: For Living on Earth, this is Alexa Dvorson in Athens.



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