Perhaps we should have consulted the Oracle at Delphi before the Athens Olympics, because the project managers turned out to be inaccurate soothsayers
The world owes Greece an apology.
Contrary to popular expectation, the 2004 Olympic Games were extraordinarily successful in just about every respect.
Before the opening ceremony, the predictions were ominous. The soothsayers and oracles spoke of incomplete sports facilities; that the Olympic Stadium and other aspects of the complex would not be ready on time; that the Olympic Village for athletes would be unable to cope with the strain, and that athletes and spectators would spend hours gridlocked in the city’s traffic system. Worst of all was the fear that al-Qaeda would take this opportunity to remind the world of its continued existence.
I was very privileged to be selected to lead the Great Britain fencing team at the 2004 Games.
In preparation for the role, I attended countless management weekends and reconnaissance trips to ensure we had all the answers to the myriad problems that almost everyone outside Greece felt sure would be posed by that nation’s lack of preparedness to host the event.
In terms of transport contingency plans, we even looked at the option of transferring the team to accommodation close to the fencing venue, just in case living in the Olympic Village and travelling to Glyfada (where fencing and sports such as sailing, basketball and hockey were held) became too difficult to bear.
As recently as May, on my final recce to Athens with the British Olympic Association, many of the non-Greeks I met privately believed that the travel time from the Village to Glyfada would be something like two hours. I was certainly seduced into believing that there was no way that the new tram line connecting the city centre with Glyfada could ever be ready in time, and that the Athenian motorists would never obey the requirement to keep out of the special Olympic lane established on every major highway.
In the event, the Olympic transport hub worked like a dream. Competitors and officials had their own private bus station at the Olympic Village, with air-conditioned coaches leaving every few minutes for each of the 30-plus destinations. Not only were there sports-specific buses to get people from their own sport to each venue, but there were also dedicated buses getting spectating athletes and officials to any other venue of their choice – something I don’t remember from my only previous Olympic experience, as captain of the sabre team in 1992 at Barcelona.
During my time at this year’s Olympic Games, I must have travelled on at least 50 coaches. I never had to wait more than a few minutes and the journey to Glyfada was never more than half an hour. A combination of Athenian pride and fear of the instantly imposed huge fines meant that I never saw any vehicle other than the official transport using the Olympic lanes.
Countless management weekends ensured that we had all the answers to the myriad problems that almost everyone outside of Greece felt sure would be posed by that nation’s lack of preparedness to host the Games
As well as being present for every day of the competition at the Helenikon Fencing Centre, I also managed to visit several other facilities. I proudly walked inside the Olympic Stadium as a participant at the opening ceremony. As a spectator, I went back for the opening night of athletics to see Kelly Holmes win her 800 m heat. The stadium was suitably awesome.
It is certainly true that the Greeks cut corners, and lots of them. The athletes’ entry to the fencing venue, which was a refurbished hangar on the site of the old Athens airport, was on the opposite side of the building to the public access. As such, it was only likely to be seen by the 200 fencers and maybe another 200 officials, referees and local volunteers, and there was no likelihood of it being televised. To access the venue this way, one came up a small flight of stairs and then down a long corridor to the main training and competing areas. It was only towards the end of the competition that I happened to take a peak behind the screens on the left of the entrance, only to find a cavernous area of sealed-off builders’ rubble and dust.
There was a similar attitude to the whole landscaping process. It looked good wherever the TV cameras might go, but it was non-existent anywhere else. The area around the Team GB HQ and apartments in the Olympic Village was just dirt and weed. However, the village itself functioned very well. My team’s apartment was clean and spacious with great views of the surrounding hills in the north of Athens.
Having said this, the Greek attitude towards safety was often sadly apparent. On my first day in the village, a colleague pointed out to me a wooden pallet lying on the ground quite close to the Team GB HQ. It was put there by an official from the BOA to cover up an open manhole, in an area of poor lighting, easily wide enough for someone to fall into with a 6 ft drop. It was, of course, reported on the day of discovery but, some weeks later, as I made my way out of the Village at 4am on the start of a long journey home, I noted that the wooden pallet was still doing its guard duty.
When I mentioned to a well-respected colleague that I might start this article by saying that the world owes Greece an apology, he replied by saying that the Greeks owed an apology to the 17 construction workers who were killed in the rush to complete projects on time. That is very true, but since five construction workers died in the UK in just one of the weeks during which these Olympics were held, I feel strangely unable to point the finger.
By the way, the Team GB fencers achieved their best overall result for 40 years. The best individual performance was the 5th place won by a civil engineering student, Richard Kruse, who once again proved that the UK construction industry produces the best fencers.
Graham Watts is chief executive of the Construction Industry Council