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Greek ambassador George Savvaides: Let the games begin!
The Washington Diplomat / August 2004

By Larry Luxner

On Aug. 13, Greece will inaugurate the first Olympic Games of the new millenium in an elaborate ceremony attended by 70,000 lucky spectators.

Unfortunately, Greek Ambassador George Savvaides won't be among them.

"I have to be here in Washington," lamented the diplomat, who plans to celebrate his 59th birthday that day while watching the festivities on TV, along with 3.5 billion other viewers. "All Greek ambassadors are required to stay at their posts in order to make sure everything goes well."

And everything will, Savvaides assured us despite worldwide fears that terrorists will disrupt the Games, which conclude Aug. 29.

"This is a very important undertaking for Greece, not only from the organizational point of view, but also from the cultural and political point of view," said Savvaides, former secretary-general of the Greek Foreign Ministry and an ex-ambassador to NATO. "This event promotes human understanding and friendship, but also the values of culture that were born in Greece 3,000 years ago."

The Games began in 776 B.C. and continued until 393 A.D., when the Roman Empire prohibited all games that were not considered pagan.

As such, the Marathon will be run on the original route, cycling will take place in the historic city center around the Acropolis, archery will be held in the Panathinaiko marble stadium site of the first Modern Olympic Games in 1896 and the shotput event will be staged at the ancient stadium of Olympia.

"This will be the first time since the 4th century that an athletic event will take place there," he said proudly. "We also promote the idea of the Olympic truce. In ancient times, the Olympic Games were accompanied by the cessation of hostilities by warring factions in order to provide safe passage of spectators to Olympia and back to their towns. Last November, the UN General Assembly unanimously passed a resolution calling on all countries to respect the Olympic truce."

In total, 202 national delegations will be represented at the Olympics, ranging from war-ravaged Afghanistan to financially destitute Zimbabwe. The largest contingents will be coming from the United States and Australia. Greece's neighbor to the north will be participating under the name "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia" since the Greek government has refused to recognize the name Macedonia ever since that country declared independence 13 years ago.

"Under a1995 agreement, both sides are obligated to find a mutually acceptable solution to the name issue," said Savvaides.

Also fielding national teams are places like American Samoa, Aruba, Bermuda, Hong Kong, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, which are not independent countries at all but act as such for Olympic purposes. Taiwan is sending its delegation under the banner of "Chinese Taipei" in order to avoid offending Beijing.

The Afghans, incidentally, are participating thanks to the generosity of the Greek government.

"The Olympic team from Afghanistan has been in Greece for a few months now, training on the island of Lesbos," Savvaides said. "All the expenses were covered by the Greek side. We are doing this as a symbolic gesture. We're not looking for any concrete financial benefits."

Nor should Greece expect any, he suggested.

The official budget for the Games is approximately $2.5 billion. Of that, 37% will come from radio and TV broadcast rights; some 3,800 hours of live coverage are planned. Another 28% is coming from product licensing and ticket sales which have been much slower than anticipated and 23% from corporate sponsors. The Greek government is footing the remaining 12% of the bill.

Major international sponsors include Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Panasonic, Samsung, Sports Illustrated, Swatch, VISA, Kodak and Xerox. Greek sponsors include Olympic Airlines, Alpha Bank, Heineken/Athenian Brewery and Hellenic Post.

In addition to the Games themselves, Greece is spending $7 billion on infrastructure improvements either directly or indirectly linked with the Olympics.

This includes the new Eleftherios Venizelos Airport, opened in March 2001; a new metro system for Athens that now carries 400,000 passengers a day; a new, 32-kilometer-long suburban railway that will link Athens with the new airport; a 23-km-long tram system, and a 60-km-long ring road around Athens that was completed in June.

The Olympic Village, located 21 kilometers from central Athens, consists of 366 buildings that'll house 16,000 athletes and team officials. After the Games are over, the village will provide affordable housing for 2,500 families.

"The entire political spectrum in Greece is supportive of the Games," said the ambassador. "Some Athenians are not very happy about the traffic, but they know very well that following the end of the Olympics, all this infrastructure will remain there for the benefit of the city. This is a national cause."

All told, the upcoming Games will encompass 28 sports, 35 competition venues, 301 medal ceremonies, 72 Olympic training facilities, 10,500 athletes, 5,500 team officials, 45,000 volunteers, more than 21,000 media people and 5.3 million ticketed spectators.

This will be the first Olympics to enforce the new WADA anti-doping code, with 613 people including 49 doctors to staff the International Olympic Committee's anti-doping program.

But numbers alone don't tell the whole story.

"The Games will be an excellent opportunity for Greece to project an image of a modern country with the capacity to organize and host major events, provided the Games are successful," he said, noting that Greece receives over 14 million tourists a year, ranking it among the world's top 15 tourist destinations

"Greece is determined and capable of doing the job, and we will use our unique position to revive the true Olympic spirit of international cooperation, understanding and brotherhood," he added. "Very few countries in the last 100 years have been given the opportunity to host the Olympics a second time, and even fewer countries of our size have been considered, with the exception of Finland, the Netherlands and Belgium [in the early 20th century]."

Yet the threat of terrorism hangs over the Games like never before.

Painfully aware that these are the first Olympics since the attacks of Sept. 11 not to mention the recent wave of al-Qaeda attacks in Iraq, Spain and Saudi Arabia Greek officials are leaving nothing to chance.

"Even though we don't have any indications of threats concerning the Olympic Games, we're taking all the necessary precautions in order to avoid any eventuality. Following the events of 9/11, we consider the security aspects of the Games of cardinal importance. For this reason, we did not spare any effort financial or political to cover all the possibilities."

Savvaides said the Games' security budget exceeds $1.2 billion, four times the amount spent on security in Sydney or Salt Lake City.

The biggest piece of that budget, $300 million, is going to San Diego-based SAIC, which will oversee responsibility for security at the Games. As such, SAIC will implement a program known as C4I (Command, Control, Communication, Coordination and Integration) which consists of 67 systems including command centers, secure digital trunk radio network, CCTV and access control, automatic vehicle location and the like.

"We have asked NATO to assist us in averting any possible security threat, to provide early-warning aircraft and naval units to patrol the Aegean Sea, and also help us face any potential biological or chemical attack," said Savvaides. "We are talking of a comprehensive effort."

More than 60,000 security forces are involved, he said. In addition, an advisory committee of eight countries the United States, Great Britain, Germany, Spain, Australia, Russia, France and Israel is providing Greek security authorities with anti-terrorism expertise "in order to avoid any unpleasant situations."

Less publicized will be the participation of 400 U.S. Special Forces soldiers, who along with Israeli and possibly British security officers will be armed.

According to the New York Times,"the delicate arrangements, which the officials say will not be formally acknowledged for fear of roiling anti-American sentiment, represent a significant departure from Olympic tradition, as well as from Greek law, which prohibits foreign personnel from carrying weapons within the country."

The Bush administration reportedly pressured the Greeks to seek NATO sponsorship for the U.S. forces "as a way to avoid stirring a political storm" in Athens, according to NATO officials quoted by the Times. Several NATO member countries were opposed to the idea but relented under pressure from Washington.

In addition to the Special Forces, the U.S.-Greek agreements call for 100 armed American agents to be used largely as bodyguards for American athletes and dignitaries. The Times reported that "the FBI is also sending a hostage rescue team, as well as evidence-gathering and analysis personnel who will be pressed into service in the event of an attack."

The newspaper quoted unnamed foreign officials as saying that their biggest concern "remains that some Greek anarchist group will set off a small explosive device in a public area removed from the Olympics and cause a panic that could affect the Games."

Savvaides discounted that possibility, however, saying that domestic terrorism no longer exists within Greece.

"The 17 November group was eradicated two years ago," he told us. "These people were arrested, tried and sentenced to very long prison terms."

Just in case, he said, a series of operational readiness exercises have been staged over the past few years, including "Rainbow 2002" (mock airplane hijacking and incident at seaport of Piraeus) and "Blue Odyssey" (chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear incident and hostage situation on a yacht).

During the Games themselves, according to the Times, participants will be protected by AWACS planes, U.S. Navy frogmen in the port of Piraeus, radiation detection devices along Greek borders and cameras in stadiums and elsewhere on the lookout for terrorist suspects.

"This did not happen overnight," Savvaides said. "It's the outcome of a lengthy process, a longstanding relationship we have with the United States that has entered a mature phase. We do not have any outstanding issues between our countries. We have trust, communications, and in my opinion, a commonality of purpose."

Greece, a NATO member since 1952, has "very good" relations with the U.S., partly a consequence of the strong Greek-American community, which numbers over two million. "In all major wars and conflicts of the 20th century, Greece and the United States were side by side."

Asked about anti-American incidents in Greece, Savvaides conceded that "there might be some expressions of anti-Americanism in one form or another, but no more than in other European countries. Such events happen all over the world, but it does not change in any way our basic feeling of friendship towards the United States."

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