A little more than a year after Athens hosted the ‘best ever’ Olympics, this is what its facilities have become – desolate monuments to poor planning and incoherent politics. Over the next five pages, Mark Leftly reports on the lessons that London needs to learn.

The Insane Driving Dimension Club is holding its weekly meeting in Faliro, the coastal port in south-west Athens. About 40 rich kids in their late teens and early 20s stamp on the accelerators of their souped-up cars, making sharp turns and performing even sharper tricks. The rubber of the wheels melts, the engines send plumes of smoke 10 feet in the air. The ubiquitous Crazy Frog anthem Axel F blasts out of the £4000 car stereo owned by Mario, one of the club’s founders. “We come here because there is nobody to complain about the noise,” he explains, pointing out the boats docked for the evening and the two dimly lit buildings behind him.

This is part of the legacy of the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, described by many commentators as “the best ever”. Those buildings behind Mario were crammed during the 17 days of the Games last August. They were specially built for the purpose, and acted as kiosks for corporate sponsors. Today, one of the buildings is completely unused, bar a community meeting about once a month. The other plays host to two security guards, who this evening are playing football, ignoring the 10 or so skateboarders that gather outside their gates every night.

They are also guarding the empty beach volleyball stadium, located just a few hundred yards away. It is an easy job: “There are no major problems,” explains one of the guards. “Kids keep trying to go into the [secure areas] to misbehave, but that is all.”

Unsurprisingly, Athenians are seething that the constructions of the most expensive games in history – *13bn (£8.8bn) – are being maintained at a conservative estimate of *40m (£26.9m) a year, but very few have yet to be awarded an after-use, some 15 months after the games ended. The beach volleyball stadium is a fine example – there have been hardly any exhibitions or events at the stadium to repay the public purse, yet it is spruced up by cleaners every two or three days. The closest the public ever get to it are the lovers parked in the few cars scattered in the rough heathland nearby.

This is a city that got its dream of the Games, but it has witnessed little of the boon it expected afterwards. Political stand-offs have created white elephants and ghost towns. They are a warning to London about what could happen after the 2012 Olympics if the government, its political rivals and sporting organisations do not agree on a comprehensive post-Games plan.

Nearby, skateboarder Pavlos shows off tricks in front of two security men guarding the empty Olympic beach volleyball stadium 

Nearby, skateboarder Pavlos shows off tricks in front of two security men guarding the empty Olympic beach volleyball stadium 

Change of government, change of plan

The problem for Athens was that there was a major political upheaval in March 2004, with the governing socialist party, PASOK, being replaced by the right-leaning New Democracy Party. With politics still ideologically driven in Greece, the move from PASOK to New Democracy was a paradigm shift that is no longer seen in UK governance. The shift was fundamental for the after-use of the Olympics, as the two parties had contrasting ideas of what should follow.

Costas Cartalis was the secretary general for the Olympic Games in 2000-04, and is now the president of strategy for the Institute of the Socialist Party. Unsurprisingly, he blames the New Democracy group for the problems: “There are two fundamental ways of looking at the Games. First, the Games are there for the needs of the city – they are a catalyst to really develop the host city, gaining momentum for business and development. Second, the city is used for the needs of the Games – you invest for 17 days and hope that from the reputation of the Games economic gains are then made as a result. The second is a catastrophic procedure.”

Cartalis insists that PASOK had designed the Games to overcome the problems of the city – a legacy that the New Democracy party has wasted. At the aforementioned Faliro area, PASOK recognised that it was an underdeveloped area, with new schemes tending to be just restaurants or small offices. PASOK moved a racecourse from Faliro to the east of Athens, replacing it with a car park for the new venues. The existing Peace & Friendship Stadium was renovated to host the volleyball, with the beach volleyball and tae kwon do stadiums built further along Faliro’s coast.

The tae kwon do stadium, which also hosted the handball tournament, was due to be converted into a convention centre under PASOK’s plans. The party estimates that it would have been reopened after minor refurbishment work after just six months. Today it is used only sporadically, although from this week it will host a one-month run of an ice-ballet version of the Nutcracker – hardly the basis for a long-term revenue stream. “We are already 15 months after the Games,” argues Cartalis, “and no Olympic facilities are open to the public.”

Although this is not quite true – Panathanaikos are temporarily using the main Olympic stadium for football matches until they get a new stadium in 2008-09 – most lay dormant. Cartalis says that there were three options for stadiums after the Games: give the ownership to the ministry of sport to manage and operate the facilities as public venues; give everything to the private sector, and only give broad guidelines on what they can and cannot do with them; or develop a public company that would be run under private law, and which would then sign deals with private companies to operate and manage the facilities together.

PASOK chose the final option. Setting up Hellenic Olympic Properties – of which Cartalis was president until just after last year’s election – the plan was that it would run a facility during the week, asking for minimal payments from universities, local clubs and the public to use them for sports training. The token charge would cover running costs, but keep it cheap for a public that had paid so much for the Games. At the weekend, the private sector would use the venues for commercial events, such as concerts and theatre, with both sides reaping a share of the profits. Cartalis calls this “specified time/space exploitation”.

PASOK’s right-leaning successor looked at a more profit-generating model – handing it over to the private sector for leases of up to 30 years. Olympic Properties has essentially changed to a company that runs the tender process. The formation of these new plans has been a time-consuming process – invitations to tender have only recently come out for the first five venues. A quick glance at the documents suggests that Cartalis is right and they have handed the private sector a lot of freedom to do as they wish. For example, at the 36,000 m2 Galatsi Indoor Hall there is an option for 8000 m2 extra development, and the overall site is permitted to be used for retail, restaurant, cultural, sports and entertainment facilities.

Cartalis says: “There was a complete philosophy change. Whatever we prepared was cancelled. There have been lots of complaints because the venues have naturally deteriorated, as they are empty. The vast majority of Athenians are very unhappy with the exploitation of venues – they could have at least assigned a temporary agent, like the ministry of sport, to take over and operate the venues while New Democracy developed its own plans.”

Nassos Alevras, an Athens MP and the former deputy minister for Olympic projects under PASOK, is equally adamant that the post-Olympic problems are the fault of his party’s successor:

In London you will be able to have more temporary venues as there are already plenty of facilities

Source close to Athens Olympics

“It is very sad that Olympic Properties has not yet implemented any plans for areas like Faliro,” he says. “Look at Nikaia. We located the weightlifting there at a cost higher than other places because it was a difficult area – there are a great lack of sports facilities there. The question is, why are we 20 months after an election and there are no new clear plans for the area?

There is confusion and a lack of a business plan. I think New Democracy is afraid of using our plans – they want the fame of using their own plans.”

Perhaps, but it could be argued that in such a close-running political situation, PASOK and New Democracy should have worked together on the legacy to ensure that either party could press ahead after the election. Alevras smiles: “Discussion is not part of our political history.”

The view from the Olympic Mini Super Market

The deputy mayor of Athens, Theodoros Skylakakis, is from New Democracy. Predictably, he blames PASOK for the lack of legacy, insisting that there was little business demand for its plans: “The public works planned for the after-use were not market-tested properly. It is a difficult question for the previous government.”

His remit is the city centre, where *120m (£81m) was spent. A densely constructed city, no major venues were built here, although there was some renovation work on facades, pavements and roads. There was also spending on security upgrades as a result of the 9/11 terrorist attacks – largely a waste of Athens’ taxpayers’ money, E

E according to Skylakakis, as “Athens is one of the safest cities in Europe”.

To have constructed new venues in the city centre, where they would have been of greatest economic benefit, would have been difficult. There would almost certainly have been protracted legal battles to buy the land – securing the purchase of land from owners to pedestrianise the archaeological sites, for example, has taken a decade. However, Skylakakis insists, there has still been a boon to tourism as a result of the games, with a 13% increase in visitors this year. “You can spend three days in the city as a tourist now,” says Skylakakis. “But you couldn’t have done beforehand.”

Walking around the central area of Omonia it is difficult to be sympathetic to Skylakakis’ economic assessment. A poor immigrant area, groups of young men hang around street corners. Anowar owns the Olympic Mini Super Market.

He says: “There has been no benefit.” Hussein, a customer and local businessman, adds: “There is actually less business than before because VAT has increased from 18% to 19%.”

Hussein does concede that there have been improvements to the roads, which have helped with deliveries. Certainly, transport is an area that everyone seems to agree has improved. As a result of the Olympics, one Metro underground line became four, a tram line was built, as well as a suburban railway connecting the new airport to the east of Athens with the city centre, with further planned expansion to the north and west of Athens.

The suburban railway takes visitors from the airport to Athens in 40 minutes. The airport was built for the Games, replacing one to the south of the city. Despite being closer, the inadequate transport links meant that the journey time used to be two hours.

Even this new railway has problems, though: the trains run at just 40-45% capacity. Konstantinos Labrinopulos and Miltiadis Farmakis run KLMF Architects, the Athenian practice that co-designed the railway – it did the preliminary design with French designer Arep and the detailed work with another Greek practice, Meas. Even the KLMF duo admit that the railway is loss-making, although they point out that it is important as it will ensure that there is the infrastructure available to help Athens grow to the east – the existing boundaries simply cannot cope with much more population growth.

Upbeat, Labrinopulos adds that the Olympics has taught the Greek construction fraternity how to build major projects, and they can now export this expertise into money-spinning schemes beyond their borders – into the Balkans, Poland and the Middle East. “The Greeks were very, very proud of the Olympics,” he concludes.

From stadium to ghost town

A walk around the Santiago Calatrava-designed Olympic complex, which includes the main stadium, the aquatic centre and velodrome, does not give the impression that this pride remains.

Why are we 20 months after an election and there are no new clear plans for the area?

Nassos Alevras, PASOK MP

It is a fairly warm late Wednesday afternoon, yet there appear to be no more than a dozen people enjoying the architectural spectacular. There are loose wires, broken glass and there is even graffiti on the statue that celebrates the 1896 games, the first Olympics of the modern era, which was also held in Athens.

The outside swimming facilities, despite being warmed up, seem underused with only one swimmer in the training pool and a handful in the synchronised swimming venue. Admittedly, later that evening they do fill up for training, and the main pool in the aquatic centre is full of schoolchildren. But the site itself remains eerie – as it darkens, all the site’s lights go on, bar a few panels on an entrance road that no longer work, illuminating a lone motorcyclist circling the site. Calatrava’s idea was that an open park would encourage people to stay and walk around the venue, enjoying picnics and the open air. PASOK’s Cartalis was one of those impressed by Calatrava’s idea, but even he admits: “So far it hasn’t worked. It is a ghost town.”

The velodrome is playing host to an event this evening, a celebration of a 19th-century Orthodox saint. “We have pictures from schoolchildren around the world,” enthuses Father Socratis, before inadvertently getting to the nub of the issue: “But no, we do not pay to use the venue.” Even the most splendid of constructions may not be sustainable if a revenue stream is not found soon.

A clue to why graffiti has been sprayed over the complex, which presumably should be one of the most heavily protected sites in Greece, is given by Panos Assimakopoulos’ story. A 26-year-old Athenian, he drove up to the complex at about 2am one morning. He says that the guards initially refused to allow him past, but he said that he just wanted to show his girlfriend around it by night. They let him in.

A headless mannequin is used by kids as a makeshift ramp for bike and skateboard jumps just by the Olympic stadium

A headless mannequin is used by kids as a makeshift ramp for bike and skateboard jumps just by the Olympic stadium

Too big for Athens?

The real problem here could be that Greece took the decision to have 90% of its venues permanently built. The cost therefore skyrocketed in absolute terms, but the theory was that it provided better long-term value for money. One venue, for example, was estimated to cost either *20m (£13.5m) for a three-month period around the Games or *35m (£23.6m) as a permanent construction with a 30-year lifespan. A source close to the decision says: “We agreed that if everything is locked up and useless after the Games we should build temporary venues; if it could be used afterwards then it could be built permanently. In London you will be able to have more temporary venues as there are already plenty of facilities there.”

Setting aside the change of post-Games philosophy, a major problem of this view is that some of the facilities are simply too big for Athens. The International Olympic Committee demands a minimum-size stadium for each sport. “The Olympics is a major festival of sport,” says one source. “But it is only for two weeks. How many other major events are there? If smaller countries are to host the Games, the IOC – which wants developing countries to bid - needs to accept that there will be smaller venues so that it can cope with maintaining them afterwards.”

A seemingly successful after-use has been found for the Olympic Village. Converted into 2300 apartments, a ballot has taken place by the Organisation of Labour Residency. This has allotted apartments to registered workers. It is understood that they pay about *400 (£269.4)/m2 to buy the apartments, whereas the construction cost was nearly double that. With air-conditioning, high levels of earthquake protection, its own hospital and three schools, this could cost as much as *3000 (£2020.3)/m2 on the open market.

On the face of it then, this has benefited ordinary Athenians. But Nickos Marcellos, the civil engineer who conducted quality control on the project, says: “In my opinion they should have sold the 2300 homes normally, then with the profits they could have built 5000 more homes. Why should there be over-design for these 2000-3000 families when we could have more homes?”

Marcellos’ friend Vagelis Papadakis, a building durability specialist, adds that some facilities might have found an after-use, but the rushed nature of the construction programme means that some small problems are starting to emerge. In his home city of Patra, a football stadium was built that is now home to the local team, Panahaiki. Built quickly, the cement covering around the steel is not always as thick as it should be, and some rust has started to emerge.

This is an appropriate symbol for the whole Games: a wonderful memory is now decaying as a result of some major oversights. Even the politicians agree that they are to blame. “If politics had not been involved,” says PASOK’s Cartalis, “it would have worked out much better.”

A fisherman lights up outside the Peace and Friendship stadium in the port of Faliro, south-west Athens. During the 2004 Olympic Games it hosted the volleyball tournament
A fisherman lights up outside the Peace and Friendship stadium
A fisherman lights up outside the Peace and Friendship stadium in the port of Faliro, south-west Athens. During the 2004 Olympic Games it hosted the volleyball tournament