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Olympic paradox

The statue of a discus thrower stands in front of the Olympic rings in the Panathenian Marble Stadium in Athens. 
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
The statue of a discus thrower stands in front of the Olympic rings in the Panathenian Marble Stadium in Athens. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)

ATHENS, Greece – Greeks are watching the modern world’s supreme sports juggernaut – and attendant corporate sponsors – descend on their ancient land with a mix of pride, joy and palpable dread.

When the Summer Olympics officially open today amid pomp, crowds of Greeks will join in the biggest show on Earth and vigorously cheer the arrival of the Olympic flame in a state-of-art stadium built for the occasion. But scratch the veneer of enthusiasm just a bit, and Greeks can be seen and heard wrestling with questions about the financial, personal and political costs of hosting such a momentous event.

The colossal runaway expense; the chaos that characterized the preparations; the invasive security – all these things and more give pause to ordinary Greeks.

At the same time, a visceral sense of pride is taking hold – after all, the Games were born here millennia ago – and Greeks from the glittery elite on their yachts to the workaday store clerks forgoing August vacation want the country to look good on this all-encompassing international stage.

“There is a real ambivalence,” said Nikos Dimou, a Greek pundit and author of the best-selling book, “The Misery of Being Greek.” “Greeks have a sort of split personality.”

On the one hand, Dimou said, they crave international acceptance and approval. On the other, they resent the criticism and doubts about whether they could actually pull this off. It hit a sensitive nerve in the Greek psyche: philotimo – honor with dignity, essentially. Greeks have felt their honor was at stake.

The nation has linked its self-esteem and even identity as a modern member of the European fold to its ability to stage an Olympics free of major calamity. Many Greeks say it is important to dispel the notion that Greece, cradle of Western civilization, is today the poor stepchild of the European Union.

Newspapers in Athens this week have been full of reports on foreign doubting Thomases forced to eat crow at seeing Greece succeed in getting ready for the Games, constructing or refurbishing 38 venues and finding room for 10,500 athletes, 21,000 journalists and an endless list of dignitaries.

“I would never say, ‘I told you so,’ ” said Athens Mayor Dora Bakoyannis, one of the most formidable public faces of Greece’s Herculean efforts to prepare for the Games. “But I would say, ‘Trust the Greeks.’ We made it.”

Especially since the end of the right-wing military dictatorship three decades ago and the ascension of popularly elected leaders, Greece has striven to define itself. It is Western and democratic. It’s also Balkan and tradition-bound and reverent of Eastern-rite Orthodoxy.

Greece is a member of NATO, yet is a place where visiting Americans this week have been told by their government not to appear “too American.” It is the one country in the EU that most strenuously fought the removal of religion from citizens’ ID cards. Strains of xenophobia and nationalism run alongside the sleek new cars, latest mobile phones and Cartier fashion houses.

“Greeks can be very modern on some things, and totally antique on others,” Dimou said.

Greece is also a poor and very small country that has taken on the most elaborate and expensive of sporting events.

By the thousands, Greeks are fleeing Athens to get away from the festivities. And the waves of tourists that the government promised – and is counting on to make back some money – have failed to materialize.

Ticket sales to the events have been sluggish – with fewer than half sold two days before the opening ceremonies – and only began to grow after the prime minister went on television to plead for Greeks to fill the stadiums.

Athens is decidedly spiffed up for this 17-day occasion and can boast an enlarged, ultra-modern subway system, new roads and important bridges. The central Constitution Square has never looked lovelier. Flags of many of the 202 countries participating in the Games, plus the mammoth orange and blue banners representing Athens 2004, the organizing committee, festoon the main streets of the city.

A few blocks away, in many parts of the city, it would be hard to tell that anything out of the ordinary is happening.

At a travel agency on Queen Amalias Street, a stone’s throw from the royal gardens where the Greek government has set up headquarters for thousands of visiting journalists, two women sat dejectedly awaiting the flood of customers Games organizers promised would come. They had not sold a single ticket to a foreign tourist – not to the Acropolis, not to the ferries that cross the sparkling Aegean to Greece’s idyllic islands.

“Everything is upside down,” said one of the women, Erato, 65. She didn’t want her last name used – criticizing the Olympics is frowned upon.

“The tourists who would normally be here haven’t come,” she continued with a sigh. “There is no benefit at all to the people. Nikon and Coca-Cola – they will earn from the Games, not the people. This whole idea from the first moment was ridiculous.”