SBJ/April 12 - 18, 2004/SBJ In Depth

Game plan for Athens

Athens, Greece, Aug. 14, 2004. Day 2 of the Olympic Games. It is warm, with outdoor temperatures surpassing 90 degrees. The swimming competition begins in three hours, but already there is tension in the air, not to mention exhaust fumes, as a jet-lagged wave of corporate guests steps out of the lobby of a central Athens luxury hotel, still digesting a late lunch (in true Athenian tradition). Some would have preferred to try a local café, but the group has been warned not to stray from the hotel’s secure hospitality suites for meals.

Their private bus leaves again in 15 minutes to make a journey of about six miles north to the open-air Olympic Aquatic Centre at the Athens Olympic Sports Complex. Factoring in likely traffic tie-ups en route, it can take 50 minutes or more to reach the site, even in the so-called “Olympic Lane.”

At the venue, lines form as spectators undergo meticulous security inspection. Bags are searched and scanned. Magnetometers beep incessantly. Shoes and belts come off. Cell phones are dumped into baskets.

Finally, the sun-baked seating area (a planned roof was scrapped in March after delays) is in sight. It has just been “swept” by plainclothes security staffers using portable detection equipment.The first athletes appear on the deck, squinting in the glare though the “evening session” is about an hour away.

It is now just after 6 p.m., but still sweltering. The competition will wrap up in about three hours, followed by another long return trip, punctuated by occasional hard braking as the driver avoids one of hundreds of motor scooters dashing along Kifissias Avenue.

Traffic frequently intensifies after dark in this city of late diners. Tonight, Athens is a city bursting at its seams with hundreds of thousands of visitors moving around in motor coaches and private cars, or jamming the Metro subway.

Just like athletes in training, corporations, hospitality packagers, public relations agencies and news media organizations are sweating the details, imagining scenarios and bracing for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, a host city with limited capacities in many areas except, of course, heritage.

A welcome distraction arrived last month when the Olympic flame of 2004 danced to life, engulfing the tip of a torch while women in tradition-inspired priestess garb observed solemnly.

The irony of the ritual is striking. In the moment of the flame’s rebirth, it is all smoke and mirrors. The sun’s rays from skies above the village of Olympia strike a concave, polished mirror, generating heat, vapors and, suddenly, a flame. As a precaution, a backup torch was similarly ignited the day before, in the event of clouds at the appointed hour.

Only 120 days removed from the Opening Ceremony in Athens, it remains to be seen if promises by Greek government officials and Games organizers were born of smoke-and-mirrors optimism. What is more certain is that there is no backup protecting this $2.38 billion endeavor by Greece. Barring truly catastrophic circumstances, the Aug. 13-29 Games will go on.

But how will they go down in history? During recent meetings in Athens, one International Olympic Committee member, requesting anonymity, said: “We will know on the 30th of August.”

Veterans of Games on-site planning have an obligation to be as prepared for the 17 days as any world-class Olympian. Schedules must be kept. Hospitality and event ticketing must run seamlessly. VIPs must be kept above the fray. But the underlying concern shared universally — but discussed only privately — with four months to go is whether the Athens Games ultimately will be shielded from terrorism, both isolated and broadly orchestrated; whether an investment of nearly $1 billion in security planning and training, or the recent addition of NATO air and tactical support, is enough.

A cheap backpack bomb planted in an unsecured area of Atlanta during the 1996 Games killed one bystander and shut the Games down for three days. What would be the reaction to a similarly isolated incident in Athens in a new era of terror? It is a subplot, more worrisome since the deadly March 11 Madrid bombings, for which the might of corporations and the sanctity of Olympic ideals are no match.

Everyone heads into Athens knowing that one incident in these times of heightened tension further shatters the notion that the Games are off limits, a concept bruised by the 1972 Munich hostage crisis after the athlete village was easily infiltrated. A larger-scale terror attack in Athens would damage the investment returns on $55 million each by 11 global sponsors (since 2001) and hundreds of millions in broadcast rights, and perhaps threaten the viability of global sports events as we have known them since Athens played host to the revival of the modern Olympic era in 1896.

“Up to now, we haven’t received any indication of the existence of a threat,” said Greek Ministry of Public Order spokesman Eleftherios Ikonomou in an interview in Athens a week before the Madrid commuter rail attacks. “But we do not rest. We keep working.”

Security check

Between 1997, when IOC members voted to award the Games to Athens, and 2000, when the IOC realized little work had been done other than that which gave Athens a stunning new international airport, intense scrutiny shifted to Games facilities and transportation issues. After Sept. 11, 2001, security joined the urgency list.

"Up to now, we haven't received any indication of the existence of a threat. But we do not rest. We keep working."
Eleftherios Ikonomou Greek Ministry of Public Order
Since then, a highly publicized effort by the Greek government and the Athens 2004 organizing committee (ATHOC) has evolved. ATHOC in 2002 brought in former New South Wales police chief Peter Ryan, a Brit who headed security for the successful Sydney 2000 Games, as its security czar. He is coordinating a 41,000-plus team of personnel drawn from the Greek police, special forces, coast guard, private agencies and volunteers.

Greece formed an Olympic Advisory Group to draw on the expertise of officials from seven nations — Australia, France, Germany, Israel, Spain, the United Kingdom and United States.

After a tedious bidding process that dragged into 2003, a contract was tendered with U.S.-based Science Applications International Corp. to install the first security communications infrastructure in the nation’s history, due to be completed at the end of May. Greece was the only developed European country without such a vital technological backbone.

“We give them the means,” said SAIC senior vice president David Tubbs, head of the Athens project. “Then [ATHOC and the government] decide how to use it.”

Working with its security allies, Greece has conducted a series of large-scale security drills with catchy names such as Blue Odyssey and, in March, Hercules Shield, involving 2,000 people from various forces. And following the long-awaited March 7 national election, a new government moved quickly to secure an agreement whereby NATO forces will supply air surveillance and technological support around the period of the Games, expected to attract about 1 million visitors.

Jan Katzoff, chief executive of SportsMark Management Group, orchestrator of Athens hospitality programs for 5,000 people from five corporations, including Visa and Xerox, recalls Athens feeling cramped when he lived there briefly many years ago. “Even then, people always used to say it was a city built for half a million people,” he said. “Now it has 5 million.”

SportsMark expanded its support staff for these Games by 25 percent above its typical manpower, he said.

“The big question marks are still transportation and security,” said Olympic marketing manager Terry Dillman of Xerox Corp., which is ending a 10-year run as worldwide sponsor after Athens. “I feel confident there [on security]. But you just don’t know if some suicide bomber is going to walk into Plaka and blow up the [central city] square. How can we know what will happen?”

Dillman joined fellow sponsors in Athens during a series of workshops in March that included a discussion of crisis communications. This is not a new topic for Olympic sponsors, but it is more top of mind than ever.

The underwriters of the Games know there are risks in Athens, and that they existed even in the pre-9/11 world. Greece has had porous borders for decades. Its entry into the European Union only makes the country more accessible. Flying into Athens from a major European hub such as Frankfurt, a traveler who has made it that far is subject to little further scrutiny at the Athens airport.

Plus, as Rand Corp. terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman said in an interview, a network such as al Qaeda is proving to be not only well organized but calculating. He cites the Madrid bombings, widely seen as an al Qaeda operation, which appeared orchestrated to turn an election in Spain. Voters responded.

“They’ve become as opportunistic as they are dangerous,” said Hoffman, who in a prophetic 2003 white paper warned of smaller-scale, soft-target strategies by the architects of 9/11.

Corporations with, in some cases, more than $100 million in fees, advertising, equipment and manpower invested in the magic of the Games did not have control over the IOC’s vote for Athens any more than they have control over a terrorist scheme or poorly constructed arena. So they are left to focus on what they can control. They can be well informed. They can provide options to guests. And they can merely take comfort in the words of IOC President Jacques Rogge, who repeatedly has praised Greece for doing everything possible to secure the host city even as he has criticized the pace of construction and the feasibility of ATHOC’s original timetables.

Olympic hospitality sites

The following are some of the key areas that corporate sponsors will be using for hospitality events during the 2004 Olympic Games.

Visa Olympians Reunion Center at the Athens Tennis Club, central Athens.

Major hotels, including Astir Palace Resort (coastal property 15 miles from center city); Athens Hilton (IOC); Divani Acropolis; Divani Caravel; Marriott Ledra; Athens Inter-Continental; Hotel Grande Bretagne.

Cruise liners docked as floating hotels at Piraeus port. Originally, 11 ships were scheduled, but three operated by financially crippled Royal Olympia Cruises have been put on the sales block. Eight are now scheduled to be docked, including one reserved for the U.S. Olympic Committee and Cunard’s gigantic, new Queen Mary 2, with accommodations for 2,600.

“Hospitality Village” space inside the Athens Olympic Sports Complex, adjacent to the Olympic Stadium and Olympic swimming and diving venue.

Sponsors are universally secretive about hospitality plans for Athens. Some, such as John Hancock and Eastman Kodak, flatly refuse to allow their representatives to discuss concerns or plans related to security or logistics. Companies want to be aligned with the glorious elements of the Olympic rings, not the dubious.

“I don’t know that [security] is a creeping concern,” said Chris Welton, who as CEO of Meridian Management, the IOC’s marketing services arm, is closer to the pulse of the sponsor family than almost anyone. “It has always been there and, certainly, the world situation isn’t getting any less tense. I think [planners] have done everything they can do.”

While a majority of the Games’ worldwide sponsors have yet to acknowledge any major changes of plans, other corporate groups with a lower profile are calling audibles. Chicago-based event hospitality packager Intersport received word in recent months that 100 guests from two corporate groups canceled Athens plans, citing concern about safety issues, said Intersport senior vice president Chuck Mycoff. Intersport would not identify the groups.

NBC is operating a substantial hospitality program based in Bermuda for advertisers wishing to steer clear of Athens because of costs or anxiety. And the U.S. Olympic Committee expects to be busy delivering on alternative packages it is arranging during the Games at the opulent Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado.

A few sponsors such as ChevronTexaco, which is a U.S. team partner, dropped Athens-based plans months ago. Others, like stalwarts Coca-Cola and Visa, at least so far are not notching back. Visa will operate its reunion center for visiting past Olympians. Coke has its public collectible-pin trading and live radio broadcast sites, plus 135 locations pouring its beverages. Coke plans to accommodate 1,200 guests arriving in five waves, said Petros Karachalios, general manager of Coca-Cola’s Athens 2004 operations.

“The Greek government has provided unparalleled [security] resources,” he said in an interview at Coke’s pre-Games nerve center. Asked how he would respond to a colleague deciding to avoid the Games, Karachalios said, “I will tell him he will lose the chance of his life — to see an Olympic Games in Greece.”

USOC director of security Larry Buendorf, a former presidential Secret Service agent, last year issued a stark warning about Athens’ perils in an address to sponsors gathered for workshops in Colorado Springs, Colo. But he has stopped short of advising athletes or corporate executives to stay home. A conference call featuring Buendorf in early April outlined additional security measures.

Another security element coming into focus for sponsors involves protection of high-profile athletes making paid appearances in Athens. Agent Sheryl Shade, who represents several gymnasts expected to qualify for the U.S. team, said the client’s fee is not the only point of discussion.

“Security is a question [in contract talks] now,” she said. “We are asking, ‘How are they getting [to corporate events]? Who is taking them?’ There are a lot of hospitality questions coming up now.”

The USOC has no blanket policy for athletes after they have competed. They are essentially free to be spectators or paid greeters.

“It is really a function of the type of opportunity and the setting for that opportunity, how controlled or secured the setting is,” said USOC chief spokesman Darryl Seibel.

Security chief Buendorf coordinates athlete appearances with national governing body personnel, the athlete and their representatives. “We do not unilaterally make those decisions,” Seibel said.

Will work be finished?

Fear of the unknown is one thing. Revelations about the obvious are what have planners squirming with four months remaining.

While the general public, media and IOC members fixate on mainstream symbols of Athens’ procrastinations — principally the main Olympic stadium and its perplexing, as-yet-uninstalled designer roof, and surrounding mounds of earth — the Games’ countdown comes with other worries for what chief executive David D’Alessandro of sponsor John Hancock calls “movie extras,” those not competing or coaching.

"The big question marks are still transportation and security."
Terry Dillman Xerox Corp.
In fact, the Games and their competition venues likely will turn out to be just fine. As of the past 30 days, ATHOC reports 28 of 39 venues are at least 90 percent finished. The USOC’s Bob Condron, a media services veteran at Games since 1984, returned from Athens last month and proclaimed the athlete village and facilities in totality might rank among the best in Olympic history.

But visitors and corporate employees need to be able to get to these places without feeling like embedded war correspondents, and therein lurk the concerns (see "Getting around Athens"). In early March, ATHOC executive director and the man who would become, post-election, the new Ministry of Culture’s general secretary responsible for Games oversight, Spyros Capralos, stood before a group of international journalists to proclaim ongoing suburban rail line and tram construction “will be completed.”

The new government under Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, it seems, will be denied a honeymoon with Games pressures building. Less than three weeks after Capralos’ guarantee, the Greek transport minister, Michalis Liapis, announced there was not enough time to complete the suburban light-rail line linking central Athens to the Piraeus port, site of eight cruise ships to be docked as hotels and close to numerous coastal venues.

The Athens Metro remains an alternative. Some are advised to stay out of subways because they can be prime terror targets, but the director of Athens Metro security dismisses any need for extreme caution in his system, citing a recent $8.6 million cash infusion by the government to cover long-neglected upgrades such as gas masks, train shaft surveillance and tracking software.

“They should ride the Metro with no fear,” said Dimosthenes Giannissopoulos, who expects 1.2 million passengers a day during the Games, twice as many as usual. “Every train that leaves from a station will be scanned. Every train we will know for sure that it is a ‘clean’ train. If someone will [try to] plant a bomb, I will know.”

In the face of so many challenges, many decision makers remain defiant. Said Xerox’s Dillman: “We are forging ahead. We haven’t changed anything.”

Carlson Marketing Group’s Rana Kardestuncer, director of event and sponsorship marketing, replying by e-mail, said her agency’s staff in Athens is putting its faith in Athenian drivers of buses it has hired for the Games. “We are planning to use the designated Olympic lanes and hope the police can keep these lanes clear,” she said. “If this is not the case, we trust our experienced Athenian drivers will be able to navigate whatever is thrown at them.”

Adds Meridian’s Welton: “We can try to give comfort that [transportation] will go smoothly, but we never know until Games time.”

Sponsors and their hospitality specialists have been summoned to a two-day transportation workshop in Athens late this month to tackle unresolved issues, such as sponsor parking at venues, drop-and-load zones, airport arrival/departure operations and private vehicle accreditation for the 1 percent or so eligible to be driven between sites in cars.

“Normally, from the 10th of August to the end of the month [when locals head off on holiday], Athens is a fantastic city,” said George Mavridies, who will drive corporate clients exclusively in his Mercedes-Benz taxi during the Games at a daily rate of $450. “You can drive from one end of Athens to the other in 10 minutes. But don’t ask me about this August. It is difficult to say. We can only guess.”

Bill Psarros said he has experienced the other extreme of Athens roads: four auto accidents in two years. Over dinner in an Athens restaurant, the 49-year-old television executive said he has come close several times to garaging his cars for good. He is tired of the grind and, frankly, frightened by the threat of another collision caused by a reckless driver.

Born in Greece, Psarros lived most of his adult life in other countries, nearly 30 years, before returning to work in Athens in late 2002. “It is not what has changed that is shocking,” he said. “It is what has not changed.”

In his newly released book, “Wrestling With The Ancients: Modern Greek Identity and the Olympics,” author Alexander Kitroeff details the overlooked efforts to revive the modern Games in Athens decades before the IOC was formed in 1894. A wealthy Greek, Euangeles Zappas, fronted the money to stage a series of four Olympic festivals between 1859 and 1888 (the last three after Zappas’ death). Sports, trade and arts exhibitions were combined in each of the four.

Even in the mid- to late 1800s, pulling off these so-called Zappas Olympics seemed to strain the Athenians’ lifestyle philosophy.

“The [first Zappas Olympic Games] were marred by very poor organization, which was reported extensively in the Athenian press and which several writers saw as an affront not only to the development of sport in Greece but also to the country’s duty to its ancient past,” Kitroeff wrote. The second Zappas Games in 1870 “initially scheduled for October, had to be postponed to mid-November (probably because work at the stadium had lagged behind).” By 1875, when the third Zappas Games began, “the games were not well-organized, prompting one writer to describe them as ‘pan-Hellenic patience games.’”

Nearly 130 years later, patience is again stretched thin as Greece races to be ready for the Games of the 28th Olympiad. Those planning visits can even now imagine that a bulldozer rumbling out of view over a crest will scoop the last pile of dirt up, even as a painter applies a final coat of paint to a venue, and as a construction worker sweeps away his dust ahead of the first arriving spectators.

As the days rush toward the Opening Ceremony, IOC members, sponsors, advertisers, government security experts and athletes are left to wonder why a nation with an Olympic birthright seemed frequently hesitant to embrace it.

“We are not the ancient Greeks,” said Mavridies, as he maneuvers his taxi near the Saronikos Gulf along the Athens coastline. “We are a people who like to make the money fast. We are not working too much. Thank God we have the immigrants to be sure the work gets done. Even on the farms it’s not the Greeks who are doing the work. The immigrants are working. The Greeks are drinking coffee in the cafés.”

Steve Woodward is a writer in Chicago.

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