SYRIZA and Athens 2004

While the extent of the Greek economic crisis was recognised by world media during the dour period around 2009, the evidence of potential problems had started to emerge much earlier, including just six months after the hosting of the Athens 2004 Olympic Games, when the European Commission issued a formal warning after finding that Greece had falsified budget deficit data in the process of joining the Eurozone (Saragosa, 2004). Such reports led to increasing scrutiny of the 2004 Games as an example of financial overreach and mismanagement brought on through economic globalisation. Yet until this point, the Athens Olympic Games had been celebrated as an opportunity to modernise Athens via large-scale infrastructural investment, and also to showcase Greek culture and particular expressions of national identity rooted in nostalgic connections between the modern Olympics and ancient Greek Games. As Papanikolaou (2013, p. 2) explains: “the motivation for the Greek bid had its roots in history and in the strong national feeling that led the overwhelming majority of Greeks to fervently support such a bid.” More specifically, the bid process and hosting of the Olympic Games reflected populist conceptions of Greece as a modern nation with a unifying history, a “belief in an ancestry that is shared by all true Greeks” (Traganou, 2010, p. 246). Following the work of the Kompreser Collective (2012), the Athens 2004 Olympic Games thus sought to merge goals of neoliberal economic redevelopment with national unity, security, and consumerism in order to present a particular representation of the nation to the rest of the world; yet in doing so, the Games have often come to represent “the crowning and the final gesture” of modern Greece.

Such analyses point to the enduring and conflicted legacy of the Athens 2004 Olympic Games, emphasising the expectations and outcomes of the Games in relation to the everyday lives of Athenians and the Greek economy more generally. As Mangan (2008) explains, the hosting of the Games included plans and promises for the development of sport facilities as well as improved transport systems, infrastructure, and low-cost accommodations that would improve the quality of life for all residents. In the post-Games period, however, the fate of these facilities quickly became a symbol for the economic and social strife that accompanied the growing financial crisis. Many facilities lacked maintenance and fell into disrepair as the consequence of poor planning and financial mismanagement, and these “white elephants” came to symbolise how “the whole business of regeneration has been a blot on the Athenian landscape” (Mangan, 2008 p. xxi). Following Kissoudi (2010 p. 101), the hosting of the Olympic Games served to initiate a general transformation of Athens into a modern urban environment, including the “precious legacy” of Olympic facilities - however, the mismanagement of these facilities after the Olympics instead caused political conflict and increasing public criticism as the economic crisis deepened in the post-Games era. A similar challenge to Olympic legacy related to populist discourse is posed to Brazil and Rio 2016 in Renata Toledo’s Chapter 8 and Bryan Clift’s Chapter 9.

This era of crisis politics in turn shaped the ascendency of the SYRIZA party, whose rise to power culminated in the September 2015 election of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. SYRIZA had initially come to power in May 2014 on a leftist anti-austerity campaign premised on two main promises: first, to reverse the impacts of reductions to public spending that had been introduced by previous governments; and second, to renegotiate the debtrelief agreement between Greece and the EU, or more specifically to reassert the country’s negotiating position against what Tsipras collectively called the “troika” of the EU, European Central Bank, and International Monetary Fund (Elliott, 2015). This positioning of regional and global economic organisations as “external elites” that were primarily responsible for the ongoing crisis was therefore an essential aspect of SYRIZA’s initial campaign, as was the Tsipras bid for the prime ministry (Vasilopoulou et al., 2014). As such, discourses of blame emanating from this party have often designated the “evil other” as the global financial bodies and regional governance structures that are characterised as uncompromising and unrelenting in their handling of Greece’s precarious economic situation. Indeed, as MacMillan (2018) explains, SYRIZA’s campaigning and rhetoric has often included discourses that identify the EU and World Trade Organization (WTO) as complicit in a “dystopian ‘evil empire’” that, rather than accentuating democracy, freedom, and human rights, actually works to undercut these ideals against the “will of the people.”

This analysis therefore focuses on how criticism of the Athens Olympic Games was central to the discourses of blame expressed by SYRIZA and

Tsipras, in that the legacy of the Games - and in particular the “white elephant” status of the Olympic facilities - was incorporated into populist messages critiquing the failure of previous governments and the “external elites” that were complicit in the financial crisis. In this mode, the legacy of hosting the 2004 Olympic Games was primarily invoked by SYRIZA as an example of corruption and fiscal negligence at the hands of both domestic governments and regional and global economic structures. As Tsipras discussed in an interview in 2012:

New Democracy and PASOK, the two parties that were in charge of the fate of the country all these years, and took it into the eurozone, worked on the basis of easy profit on the stock exchange, easy loans and the false consumer needs of the Greek people. They didn’t leave anything behind, any infrastructure, when for over a decade, between 1996 and 2008, Greece had a record of positive growth - rates that before the 12004] Athens Olympic Games were at 7% or 8%. Where did it go? It went into the pockets of certain corrupt and wealthy [individuals] and banks, to those who were paid kickbacks for defence procurements and constructions for the Olympic Games. It didn’t go into building a better social state. We didn’t build better schools or better hospitals, and now Greek people are in a much worse place to confront the crisis than, say, the French, the Spanish and other Europeans.

(Smith, 2012)

Thus, while the rest of the world has contemplated the extent to which the Olympic Games have contributed to the “rotting” of the Greek economy (Berlin, 2015), the legacy of the Games was also continually brought into question by SYRIZA and Tsipras as part of a wider political strategy. In particular, details regarding the cost of the Games work to emphasise the relative failure of the Games as an economic re-generation project taken on by the previous government in conjunction with global and regional financial elites. As one example, the Greek government paid €100 million to the German engineering giant Siemens to build a high tech “anti-terrorist” security system during the Athens 2004 Olympic Games that never worked, including two state-of-the-art high-tech submarines that were deemed too unstable to operate (D’Amato, 2015). These examples of cost over-runs and poor planning and coordination also work to connect the mistakes associated with the Athens Olympic Games with the “blame” of the current situation. In discussing the future of a publicly-owned cultural centre that had been partially closed by a loss of funding in 2017, Tsipras explained that such situations were caused in part by Athens 2004 Olympic Games: “They [the facilities threatened with closure] are due to the fact that many Olympic facilities on which the people spent hundreds of millions [of euros] remain unexploited, virtually in ruin” (The National Herald, 2017). Such statements demonstrate that for SYRIZA, the Athens Olympics served as a symbol and constant reminder of the broken relationship between Greece and the “external elites” of global governance and finance that are ultimately to blame for the nation’s predicament.

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