Tag Archives: Athens Olympics

In the Olympic race, Athens fell short of the line

One of the beauties of the Olympics is that it provides cut-and-dried answers to questions like “Who is the fastest?” “Who can jump the longest?” and “How high can they reach?” But while such queries are answered on the track, the field and elsewhere, the success of the Games themselves is a much more subjective thing.

Few can doubt that London2012 exceeded expectations. So surely it must be classified as a success. Well, it’s not that simple. Athens2004 also blew people away but its legacy has been in doubt almost since the moment the last athlete left the city. Today, the Athens Games are the bogeyman deployed to scare any other cities that might be inclined to see the occasion as a carefree celebration rather than a precision-timed exercise in planning and public spending.

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In pursuit of fool’s gold

In a harrowing Olympic Games for Greece, perhaps the country’s most tragic figure in London was open water swimmer Spyros Gianniotis. After 10 kilometers of grueling competition in Hyde Park’s Serpentine, an Olympic medal slipped from the 32-year-old’s grasp in the final seconds of the race. Gianniotis, a world champion in this event, missed his fourth chance to add an Olympic medal to his collection. He admitted that at his age, this might have been his last opportunity. Seconds later, he broke down in tears.

There was something else eating away at the swimmer. He knew that at these Games, where the Greek Olympic squad was whittled down to just 105 athletes, some traveling without their coaches due to a lack of funding, and where just two bronze medals had been won by Greek competitors, another podium finish would have meant a great deal.

“This was different from all my other races,” he told NET TV. “I wanted to do this for my country.”

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Greece and the euro: The end of the affair

Graffiti by Absent

A few weeks ago, I was interviewed by a Danish journalist in front of Parliament. He took out a 2-euro coin, flipped it over and showed me the engraving depicting the mythological story of Europa being whisked off by Zeus, who transformed himself into a bull to achieve the task. It’s a scene that is usually known as the seduction, or even abduction, of Europa. “This coin shows the Rape of Europa,” the journalist said. “Do you think Greece is raping Europe or is Europe raping Greece?”

After picking up my jaw from the floor, I gave an inadequate answer about Europe and Greece having a consensual relationship that was going through a rough patch. “We knew all about each other when we climbed into bed together,” was my final repost to his jarring question. Of course, the truth is that seduction only really works when you don’t know all about each other. And, as we’ve discovered over the last few months, Greece knew little about itself, let alone about Europe, before becoming part of the euro.

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London calling. Listening, Athens?

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

On the day London was awarded the 2012 Olympic Games, we played The Clash’s “London Calling” on a radio show I co-hosted in Athens. The song — about a world slipping toward some kind of destruction — was played by a lone guitarist at a recent event to mark the one-year countdown to the English capital hosting the world’s biggest sporting event. A few days later, its lyrics — such as “London calling to the underworld/Come out of the cupboard, you boys and girls” — proved an appropriate soundtrack to possibly the worst civil unrest, rioting and looting the city has ever seen.

It seemed a delicious irony that an e-mail informing me about ticketing arrangements for the 2012 Olympics should arrive in my in-box on Tuesday afternoon, as London and other cities braced for a fourth night of rioting. But there is nothing amusing in seeing the city you were born in being ripped apart a few weeks after the city you live in suffered the same fate. I can feel nothing but sadness at seeing areas I know well, places where friends live and a neighborhood where my father ran a business for more than two decades being decimated by youths who appear to have no comprehension of the damage they are wreaking on communities.

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A marriage of convenience

For some reason, weddings seemed to be on people’s minds over the past few weeks. Along with tying the knot, anniversaries were also a popular subject. While Britain revelled in Will and Kate’s moment in the sun, Greeks had a less pleasant moment of their own to share: a few days before the royal wedding, Greece marked a year since it made an official appeal to the European Union and the International Monetary Fund for an emergency loan package.

Understandably, there was no flag waving or street parties to accompany the one-year anniversary of Greece admitting its political and economic failure. There was no puffing out of chests or swelling of pride to mark the 12 months since Prime Minister George Papandreou accepted that the party was over for Greece and it needed help to pay a bill that would have made even the Windsor’s wince.

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Greece, land of pain and joy

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

There are rare moments when a thread of togetherness winds its way through a country to lift its everyday burdens. Sometimes, these moments are born from political, sporting or other types of victories. But victories tend to bring out the worst as well as the best in people. It’s usually moments of grief or sadness that stoke the purest of emotions, creating a fleeting sense of community before it’s sucked into the morass of daily stresses and strains.

Greece experienced such a moment last Sunday when the death of singer-songwriter and musician Nikos Papazoglou was announced. He was an unassuming man who made rare public appearances and dodged the media spotlight. The reaction to his death was a reflection of people’s love for his pure and passionate music, but it was also a sign of respect for Papazoglou the human being: as an artist he shunned commercialism and stayed true to his values and as a man he remained humble and generous despite his fame.

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Illustration in linocut by Manos Symeonakis

As far as walks to work go, it was pretty inspiring: exiting the train station to see the Acropolis in the predawn darkness, like a faint chalk outline on a blackboard, before heading along the cobbled street that runs past the ancient Kerameikos cemetery, where Pericles delivered his famous funeral oration in 431 BC.

After that early morning blast of history, arriving at the headquarters of Athens International Radio (AIR) 104.4 FM at the old gasworks in Gazi often felt like an anti-climax. But I came across much that was inspiring during the year I spent at AIR, where a small and determined team countered limited resources and bureaucratic obstacles with humor and hard work to produce programs that were at times as rough as a lump of quartz but often as refined as the quartz movement of a quality timepiece.

AIR was established by the City of Athens ahead of the 2004 Olympics to provide visitors with information and entertainment in English, French, German, Spanish and Italian. Its success gave it a lease on life beyond the confines of the Games and a steady stream of languages were added to the programming schedule, reaching a total of 16, from Urdu to Tagalog, this year. No longer just a point of reference for tourists, the station had become a vital source of news for the patchwork of foreigners for whom Athens is home, not just a stop on their vacation. AIR was also the local broadcaster for Radio France Internationale, Deutsche Welle, China Radio International and the BBC World Service – the best that world radio has to offer.

But all this stopped on September 16 when a prosecutor unexpectedly shut down AIR’s transmitter. Two weeks on, the station is still only available via the Internet as the legal wrangle continues. It remains unclear what prompted the prosecutor’s action but at the heart of the problem lies the fact that AIR was only granted a temporary license in 2004, which it continued to use to broadcast over the next six years.

It may seem perfectly natural that a station without a proper license should be shut down but things are not that straightforward in the world of Greek radio. The first commercial radio licenses were issued in the late 1980s and over the next decade governments handed out permits with complete abandon, creating such bedlam on the airwaves that you needed the dexterity of a safe cracker to tune your dial to the station of your choice. In 1999, the then PASOK government, and its Media Minister Dimitris Reppas (now the transport minister), decided it would corral the rapidly rising number of stations by refusing to issue any more licenses. But the stations that already had permits were allowed to continue broadcasting until the creation of an evaluation procedure to decide whether they could remain on air. Eleven years later, that procedure still does not exist.

In fact, there have been only two attempts to place any kind of limitations on broadcasters. The first was in the runup to Athens International Airport opening in March 2001, when authorities wanted to keep the airwaves free from interference. Stations in Attica were issued with licenses that would have to be renewed every four years. Since then, no review has taken place and the radio stations are operating with the same licenses. The previous New Democracy government drew up a so-called “frequency map” detailing which frequencies could be used. Its initiative was passed into law but the legislation has never been applied.

The end result of this sorry tale is that Greece now has more than 900 commercial, municipal, church and student radio stations operating in a quasi-legal status. That’s an inordinate number for a country of some 11 million people: in the UK, which has a population roughly six times as large, there is less than half that number of stations. Athens has twice as many commercial stations (41), as London. Even the Hania Prefecture on Crete, home to about 150,000 people, has more stations (30) than London. The island of Chios, with just over 50,000 permanent residents, has a little way to go to catch up: it has just 17 stations – one for every 3,000 residents.

Rather than an example of Greece’s refreshing liberty and polyphony, these ridiculous numbers hide something more sinister. The failure since the late 1980s to regulate this industry is a symptom of Greece’s patron-client relationship. Governments did not want to close down stations or refuse licenses for fear of losing influential friends, while radio served as a useful pulpit for politicians to spread their word. Then, there is the issue raised this week by Athens mayoral candidate Giorgos Kaminis, who accused Athens Mayor Nikitas Kaklamanis of employing big-name journalists at the city’s municipal radio station, Athina 984, in order to guarantee their acquiescence. Kaklamanis denies this is the case but if it’s not happening in Athens, then it surely is in other parts of the country, where municipal stations are an easy way to put family and friends on the local government payroll.

So, in the midst of this feeding frenzy, AIR – a station that is run on a shoestring budget and has maintained a dignified independence on national and local political issues – seems like an unworthy scapegoat. With the city’s population becoming more diverse and when there are already so many stations that do little else but play Lady Gaga’s latest hit seven times a day, surely we can find room for a station that updates myriad nationalities about events. At a time when racial disunity and ethnic disharmony are increasing threats in the Greek capital, there must be a place on the city’s airwaves for a station that is both in the community and of the community.

In the UK, authorities realized at the start of the last decade that strict licensing laws meant some communities felt their voices were not being heard. The response was the Community Radio licensing system, under which applicants must demonstrate that their proposed nonprofit station will meet the needs of a specific, underserved section of the population. The area in which the stations can broadcast is limited and they are not allowed to raise more than 50 percent of their operating costs from one source, nor can they compete for advertising with commercial stations.

The scheme has proved a successful way of empowering communities and filling the void that the national broadcaster, the BBC, and commercial stations could not. It’s time that Greece looked at a similar scheme as part of a wider effort to regulate its airwaves, especially if it means that stations like AIR are allowed to provide their listeners with a vital public service and even occasional moments of inspiration.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on October 1, 2010.