Athens Banking on Summer Olympics

Thousands of marble slabs in the ancient Olympic stadium have been painstakingly repaired and pieced back together.

Sort of like the city itself.

Now, will it all be worth it?

With the Summer Games (search) six months away, and carrying a $5.8 billion price tag, that's the question being asked in Athens with more frequency. The games could help Athens shed its drab image for good, and turn it into a true tourist mecca and business center. Or, it could leave the city with massive debt.

"The legacy is going to be things that make life easier for Athenians," says Costas Bakouris, who was in charge of the organizing committee until a major reshuffle in 2000. "The cost of doing the games is a negative legacy."

Just ask officials in Montreal, which spent years after the 1976 Games paying off its $1 billion debt.

The International Olympic Committee (search) and its backers prefer to look to the success stories like Sydney and Barcelona, now one of Spain's gems thanks to its pre-Olympic facelift.

If all goes well, by the time the Summer Olympics open Aug. 13, Athens will have a new tram line with a breathtaking view of the Aegean Sea, a suburban rail, expanded subway and a network of highways circling the city. There's already a new airport, which opened in 2001.

"The Olympic Games are a driving force that has compelled to city to make improvements that otherwise would have taken many years to complete — or may have never happened in the foreseeable future," Athens Mayor Dora Bakoyianni (search) says.

After dragging its feet, Athens, perhaps the most problem-packed Olympic city in decades, was finally jolted into action by Olympic deadlines and public scolding from the IOC. Needed transportation and cosmetic improvements finally were pushed into high gear.

"Athens is a different city than the one I knew two years ago," IOC president Jacques Rogge has said. "The infrastructure is not made exclusively for the games, but are within the development of the city and that is a wonderful legacy for Greece."

But the breakneck pace comes with a high price. Worker overtime and lack of time for competitive bids have sent costs skyward.

The government claims it will stay within its $5.8 billion Olympic budget — even though expenses to safeguard the games have risen to record levels of more than $750 million.

The finance ministry has quietly projected that the country's debt — already among Europe's highest — may top 100 percent of the gross domestic product, which means that Greece could owe more than it is able to produce annually.

Warns economist Plato Monokroussos: "At the end of the day, the Greek taxpayer will pay."

So who stands to gain? For starters, some of Greece's wealthiest figures.

Telecommunications mogul Socrates Kokkalis (search) agreed to repair a seaside stadium for Olympic soccer matches. In exchange, he gets a 49-year lease for his soccer team, Olympiakos Piraeus.

In December, parliament rushed through new zoning laws to allow the Latsis Group, which is involved with banking, shipping and developing, to build media housing near the main stadium. After the games, Latsis plans to convert it into a shopping and entertainment complex.

Plans for a giant park at the old international airport may be revised to sell tracts to private investors.

Then there are the intangibles.

The games will be a "major advertisement" for Greece, Bakouris said.

Greece is struggling to hold its share of the tourism market and is widely ignored by major foreign investors. Finance Minister Nikos Christodoulakis has predicted the country's growth rate — currently a European Union leader at 4 percent — will continue "after gaining huge promotional benefits from the games."

Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, chief organizer of the Athens Games, said the Olympics will show the world that Athens is "a very modern country."

"All this infrastructure, in investments, in technology, in telecommunications, in sports facilities ... they are way to show that all this money is not just for the 17 days of the Olympics," Angelopoulos-Daskalaki said. "Maybe it is expensive, but nothing is wasted."

Not everyone sees a rosy future.

Hoteliers, however, complain the expected economic gains from pre-Olympic bookings haven't materialized. And Bakouris called the venues "the big enigma."

"What do you do with fancy, big, expensive athletic venues?" he asked.

And the promise of a flood of international investment could hit cultural snags: a system not fully receptive to foreign companies and a society that views private enterprise with suspicion.

A poll published in Greek newspapers on Feb. 3 found big, private business second-to-last in a list of 15 institutions most trusted. Only political parties scored worse. The most trusted: armed forces.

"We live perhaps in the only country in the Western world where private business is nearly synonymous with fraud," wrote columnist Yanni Pretenderi in To Vima newspaper.

Anti-Olympics protesters also object to the intense security measures, including limits on streets demonstrations and the installation of thousands of surveillance cameras.

"There will be a series of difficulties in exercising the rights and freedoms of the Greeks. That will be a bad legacy," said Panos Totsikas, a protest organizer against the Olympics.

Still, not all Athenians are worried about the day after the games.

"I am very proud the Olympics are taking place in Greece since it is their birthplace," said Elena Marouli, a bank employee. "They are coming back to modern Greece and I believe any debt generated from their preparation is outweighed by their importance."