The people of Greece shall host unique Games on a human scale, inspiring the world to celebrate Olympic values.    –official website, Athens 2004

The Olympic Games are coming home to die.   –anarchist graffito

The poster for The Day After Tomorrow on the main road north out of Athens (beefed up like a wrestler on steroids) shows a looming, wind-swept Parthenon menaced by ice and snow. It’s an unlikely image, but it suits the moment well. While the world’s media run endless will-they-won’t-they stories doubting Athens’s readiness for the Olympic Games, Greeks are beginning to worry about the storm that threatens when the party’s over.

For Greece the Olympics are not just a giant sporting event, a deadline for overdue capital projects or even a blockbuster rebranding opportunity. They’re also the crowning moment of fifty years of rapid modernization, chaotic and often painful–a passage from peasant farming supported by a large diaspora to a mixed economy wooing foreign investors, from the periphery of the developed world to the middle echelons of the European Union. Archeologists have rushed to salvage evidence of ancient Athens from the orgy of pre-Olympic construction, but Greece’s recent history is written on the city’s face, in the glass air-conditioned towers that line the new main roads, the organic cafes and ethnic eateries tucked into the center, the shantytowns beyond the western hills. The big dig that has swathed the streets in miles of orange netting is just the warp-speed version of a familiar process, and how Greeks feel about the Games partly depends on where they think the ride is taking them. My more prosperous or optimistic friends have tickets to the show. The rest plan to flee the city, whose “Olympic zones” will also be cleared of stray dogs, beggars and the Athenians’ omnipresent fuming, honking cars.

Even their skepticism, though, is complicated by a touchy national pride. Greece is the smallest country to host the summer Games since the Helsinki Games of 1952, and the first since September 11. It began to prepare for the Games during the huge economic push that brought it into the Eurozone in 2001, with its attendant price rises and austerity measures. (Before this year’s EU expansion, Greek workers earned the second-lowest wages in the Union.) Laughing at Greek incompetence has become a favorite sport in the international media. As a result, Athens is in the grip of an anxious bravado, as if you’d invited your boss to dinner and decided at 5 o’clock that you had to replaster the dining room. Politics, like the roof of the Olympic stadium, is partially suspended.

A year ago the city buzzed with tension and possibility. The modernizing socialist government of Costas Simitis had revolutionized Greek foreign policy but was already fatally undermined by its old guard’s corruption–a gargantuan subterranean fungus known as ta diaplekoumena, or “the entanglements.” A solution to the de facto partition of Cyprus was still in reach under Kofi Annan’s plan for federation, carefully nurtured by Simitis and his foreign minister, George Papandreou, despite the Greek and Turkish Cypriot governments’ cold feet. The members of the terrorist groupuscule November 17 had finally been arrested, but Greece’s sleazy private TV channels were using the soap opera of the trial to write off the whole history of the left. And the Olympics–well, the Olympics were a year off, an opportunity for idealism and new development or an excuse for contractors and politicians to line their pockets, depending on whom you asked.

This March the PaSok government fell in a landslide to the conservative New Democracy, led by Constantine Caramanlis. In April the Greek Cypriots voted against the Annan plan, closing the door on an unrepeatable opportunity and isolating themselves at the moment of their accession to the European Union. The change of government has brought a kind of relief; even PaSok stalwarts agree that a major cleanup is in order, and Papandreou, as new party leader, has embarked on it with a vengeance. (Of course, he may not survive the old guard’s wrath: The knives have been publicly drawn since he announced his list of young, clean and untested candidates for the European Parliament.) But apart from a few promises of economic reform, New Democracy, elected mainly for not being PaSok, is keeping mum about its plans and projects. The Cyprus referendum has left a depressed silence that deepens as the country takes the measure of what’s lost. And the impending Olympics have clamped a not-in-front-of-the-neighbors lid on substantive discussion of the future.

The organizers of Athens 2004 have made much of the ideals of “Olympism” and the return of the Games to their birthplace. (Like others before them, they’ve also discovered ancient pedigrees for all sorts of modern exigencies: “Sponsoring is a tradition that goes back to Ancient Greece, where wealthy Athenians would contribute financially [to public enterprises]…”) Their huge headquarters, which has landed like a flying saucer in the working-class neighborhood of Nea Ionia, is packed with purposeful young people. Foreign press spokesman Stratos Safioleas is a member of Greece’s new generation of foreign-educated, idealistic “technocrats”; last year I met his peers in Papandreou’s Foreign Ministry, where the serious young faces, crisp shirtsleeves and Anglo-American buzzwords (“candidate,” “overview,” “mainstream”) made me imagine for a moment that I was backstage at The West Wing. Skeptics may carp from left and right at their reforming zeal and foreign ways, but in the long run, though they’re out of power now, the future belongs to them.

Safioleas spoke with studied forbearance about the negative press that has dogged the Athens Games (“after all, the delays were real”) and unguarded enthusiasm about the outcome: “When you think of the way people cheered that Swiss marathon runner who came in last, or the African swimmer who could barely make it because his country had no facilities, and you ask why these people move us, you understand why the Games are important. It’s a human story, about human effort.” I left his office with my cynicism dented: Perhaps there’s more to international sport than steroids and sponsorship. Even better, Safioleas insisted that the change of government hadn’t affected the Olympic preparations: “The Games never became a political football.” So entrenched is political patronage in Greece that a mere Cabinet reshuffle knocks over jobs like dominoes; anything that shifts that culture must be a good thing.

But old habits die hard. Only a few hours later the minister for environment, physical planning and public works, Georgios Souflias, was wondering aloud, “for financial and other reasons,” whether Greece should have taken on the Olympics in the first place; Athens 2004 head Gianna Angelopoulou-Daskalaki and Athens Mayor Dora Bakoyianni, both from New Democracy, were having a public turf war. The Furies of the Athens press went wild. “Unprecedented confusion in the government,” roared PaSok’s Ta Nea; “Stab in the Back,” shrieked the leftish Eleftherotypia.

Unfortunately, although he chose the wrong moment to make it, Souflias has a point. The Olympics budget has ballooned from 4 billion euros to around 6 billion; the deputy finance minister has said that paying off the debt will take about ten years. Fear of terrorism and rumors of chaos have devastated ticket sales; hotel bookings are also down. Service-sector workers are pushing for some payback before the deficit bites: Firefighters, police and paramedics have demanded Olympics bonuses; ambulance drivers have threatened an August work stoppage, as have hotel employees. Taxi drivers are up in arms at being sidelined by “official” vehicles. Athens seems to be heading for the Montreal model (the ’76 Olympics almost bankrupted Quebec) rather than the hoped-for Barcelona miracle.

A significant part of the budget overrun is due to security costs, estimated at more than 1 billion euros–more than four times what was spent in Sydney in 2000. Greece has been at the forefront of the movement to revive the Olympic Truce, the sixteen-day cessation of hostilities that was the reason for the ancient Games’ foundation, and which remained almost unbroken for 1,200 years. For the first time the Olympic torch is bringing its message of peace to all five continents. But this summer the airspace over Athens will be patrolled by NATO surveillance planes; US battleships and brand-new Coast Guard boats will blockade the shore; 45,000 armed guards and 50,000 police will spread out through the streets; frogmen with M-16s and grenade launchers will swim in Piraeus harbor. The US company SAIC (whose clients include the Joint Chiefs of Staff) has sold Greece a $290,000 C4I system, which will survey the city with some 1,400 cameras. Quoting an “informed American source” against categorical official denials, Ta Nea reported that the US, British and Israeli teams’ security guards will be armed even inside the stadiums, in contravention of the Greek Constitution and Olympic principle.

Obviously the dangers are real, and everyone wants the Olympics to be safe. But many Greeks feel that Athens has been forced–by American pressure and media paranoia–to accept extravagant measures that will militarize the Games, permanently invade their privacy and infringe their country’s sovereignty. SAIC’s fixed cameras and the Coast Guard boats will stay on long after the athletes have gone home, watching the citizenry and keeping migrants and asylum seekers from Europe’s longest coast, a measure long demanded by the European Union.

And still the foreign media aren’t satisfied: Fear, as we know, sells papers. In May a reporter from Rupert Murdoch’s London Times entered the stadium, still a building site, at night to test Olympic security; although she was arrested, the paper splashed her piece on its front page, causing uproar in Athens. (“It’s a good thing something didn’t fall on her head and kill her,” one of the guards–now primed to sniff out journalists as well as terrorists–told me. “The smallest–the smallest–screwup there is a foot long.”) In today’s jittery atmosphere, such “scoops” are paid for in lost ticket sales and athletes scared away.

Santiago Calatrava’s designs for the stadium and the velodrome may have cost more than this country can afford, but they are spectacularly beautiful. The velodrome looks like a gray-blue prehistoric beast with white transparent wings, a dolphin’s back breaking the water; it has lightness and movement, strength and humility, and it looks perfectly at home under the Attic sky. Supervising engineer Nikos Louridas showed me round the site–“I do this because I want to; you can’t not explain things and then complain when people report them wrong”–while workers swarmed across the polycarbonate panels high above our heads; for the first time I wished that I was going to the Games.

Here too, though, there’s an ugly price to pay. Greece’s immigration policies are among the most chaotic and iniquitous in Europe. As Louridas explained, a huge majority of the unskilled laborers at the stadium are Albanian, working with Pakistanis, Indians, Nigerians and Bulgarians; the technicians are mainly Polish, Ukrainian, Bulgarian and Romanian. What will happen to them when the Games are over? According to the Athens construction workers’ union, about a third of the foreign workers on Olympics projects are undocumented; those who have papers can’t renew them without evidence of continuous employment. And it’s these workers who’ve taken the fall, sometimes literally, for the delays. Louridas assured me that there have been no serious accidents at the stadium, and that safety equipment is always provided, though not consistently used. But at the Olympic village, according to union investigators, at least thirteen workers have been killed because of lack of proper training, pressure to work too fast and contractors pocketing the health and safety budget.

Olympic truce and fortress Athens; human scale and giant deficits; athletic pride and broken bodies. To the small but well-organized group of students I met marching in Athens against a European plan to recognize private universities, the contradictions utterly devalue the ideals. “For developing countries like ours,” said Aris, “these so-called national goals like entering the Eurozone or hosting the Olympics just serve the interests of capitalism. There is no Olympic ideal, there is no Olympic truce. ‘National pride’ is just a cover for exploitation.”

He’s right, of course. But in these days of international capital and global markets, Greece has no alternative but to join the race–running, as a journalist friend put it, “like a well-trained athlete with his shoelaces untied.” For the participants the Games will almost certainly be a last-minute success; for the Greeks the hangover will last for many years to come. In its eagerness to prove itself one of the big boys, Greece made ambitious plans that it could barely handle; no one else is going to pay the piper. But then, perhaps it couldn’t have happened any other way. Next door to a postmodern Pizza Hut full of men playing backgammon and drinking coffee, the filmmaker Amalia Zeppou put it to me like this: “The slogans make a big fuss about the Games coming home, but what is home? What is it we love here? There’s an Athens behind the scenes that matters to me; people’s desire that there should be something behind the ideals in spite of everything makes me, well, proud to be part of this country. But every year the Games get bigger and more grandiose, with sponsors, billboards, giant business deals. There’s no way Greece could get away from that. Everything is pushing us away from why we got the Games in the first place, pressing us to be the same and worse than all the rest.”