First 2old to Greece
Dick Pound, a senior member of the International Olympic Committee, speaks for many when he says of the Greeks: They think things being ready at 11:59 is plenty of time. It drives the rest of the world nuts.' It has become commonplace over the past months to portray the modernday Greeks as unworthy inheritors of the ancient civilisation with which they share their name. The Athens Olympics would never be ready on time, it was said with confidence, or if they were the stadium would have no roof and runners would choke to death on the city's notorious traffic fumes. If the word manana sums up the Spaniards' approach to life, the Greeks' attitude could be summed up by the Hellenic for 'sometime next year'.
Barring last-minute accidents, the Greeks are on the verge of proving the world's sceptics spectacularly wrong. Events may yet turn out otherwise: the Olympic flame may be blown out by a puff of wind during the opening ceremony and the organisers reduced to troubling some Slovakian discus-thrower for a lighter to get it going again. But we don't think so. Many of those who have already arrived in Athens are muttering their surprise at how things have fallen into place, and are even speaking of these being among the best Games ever.
What's more, these Games can hardly fail to compare favourably with ancient Olympiads, which were ridden with corruption and vice. What are a few cases of athletes taking illegal brands of nandrolone-enriched cough-mixture compared with the wholesale consumption of performance-enhancing sheep's testicles by ancient athletes? And what are allegations of the odd backhander offered to IOC members against the behaviour of the Arcadians, who went to war over the right to hold the 104th Olympiad in 365 Bc? At the 98th Olympiad, a boxer by the name of Eupolos of Thessaly is recorded as having bribed his competitors deliberately to fall to the ground, something which much inspired other athletes in subsequent games.
This magazine has not always been a friend of the Greeks. There are few sights more ridiculous than a Hellenic politician puffing out his chest over the right of the inhabitants of the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia to call their country by its proper name, or over the right of the British Museum to hold on to the legally obtained Elgin marbles which were saved from almost certain destruction in Turkish-run Athens in 1816. Yet many of the remarks made about Greece's preparations for the Olympics amount to xenophobia. Greece is the smallest country to have staged the Games in recent times; a Games which has swelled by nearly 50 per cent since Los Angeles 20 years ago. Of course it wasn't going to be easy to organise such an elephantine event. The fact that Greece appears to have pulled off the feat is a tribute to the Greek approach to life, and we should ask ourselves whether there is something we could learn from it. It isn't hard to imagine how matters would have progressed had it been London organising the Games: just look what happened to our attempt to stage the much smaller world athletics championships, which collapsed in incompetence. Our politicians would certainly have been quicker off the blocks than those in Athens, who did little in the first three years after being awarded the Games in 1997. Like the victorious athletes of ancient Athens — who were guaranteed a free lunch in the city hall every day for the rest of their lives — our 'minister for the Olympics' would soon have been consuming large lunches as he met all the 'stakeholders'. Lords Foster and Rogers would have rapidly received a personal invitation from Tony Blair to design the stadium, and several quangos would have been established to ensure the 'diversity' of the Games. Two years later it would have emerged that the government had somehow managed to sign a contract which allowed the builders to set whatever price they wished, and that the costs had risen tenfold. What's more, where the Greeks went ahead and dug their rowing lake in the face of protests from the World Wide Fund for Nature — which complained that 110 species of birds would lose their homes — the organisers of a British Games would spend months rehousing every sparrow. By the beginning of this year, the point at which the Greeks raised their game, most of the staff at the Olympic quangos would be on sick leave, complaining of stress. This is the one event where we do lead the world: according to the Health and Safety Commission, anxiety and depression cost the country 13 million working days per year. Needless to say, public sector workers lead the field, each taking 11 days of sick leave every year compared with eight in the private sector.
The Greeks may drive the world nuts, but our public sector workers drive themselves nuts. We are in favour of London bidding to host the games in 2012. It would make a great contribution to the gaiety of the nation. But if we want to put on as good a show as is about to start in Athens, our administrators could do with adopting a little more of the Greeks' laid-back but confident approach to life, and a little less of the whingeing, busybody attitudes that characterise public administration in Britain.