Was the loser's rage justified? Or nothing more than sour grape leaves?
The official story is this: The four members of the IOC's Study and Evaluation Commission for the Preparation of the Games of the XXVI Olympiad paid three-day visits to each of the six competing cities. (The other candidates were Belgrade, Manchester, Melbourne and Toronto.) To the local organizers they posed the same set of questions, covering everything from tidal conditions for yachting to whether hotel room rates would be frozen for the Olympic fortnight. And they took copious notes. (On the Yugoslav bid they remarked on "considerable ethnic problems in certain republics." These IOC folks don't miss a thing.)
Members of the commission ultimately declared each city "capable" of staging the Games. But about Athens they made several damning observations, all of which went into the final report submitted to the IOC membership. "Concern regarding current air pollution." "Vast amount of construction work and forward planning required before '96." "Current telecommunications systems not reliable." "Political situation unstable."
Visit Athens today, and it's hard to second-guess the IOC's vote. Traffic flows like tzatziki and the view from the Acropolis is breathtaking—in the sense of asphyxiating. But the awarding of an Olympics can be a powerful prod to civic improvement, as Barcelona proved four years ago. For the Games, Athens was to have built a dazzling new airport, a ring road girdling the city center and a modern subway system that would have kept many Athenians out of their belching cars. Those plans have been put on hold.
Greeks reflexively point to the same scapegoat: always Coca-Cola. The company took out full-page ads in Greek newspapers shortly after the vote to argue that it had been officially neutral in the selection process. Indeed, Coke had taken out equally huge ads before the vote, bannered ATHENS YOU KNOW YOU CAN DO IT, and festooned soft-drink cans in Greece with the olive-branch logo of the Athens bid committee.
In the vote's aftermath Coca-Cola employees in Greece found themselves under attack. Some Greek distributors abruptly refused to carry Coke products. Though it sponsors almost every major sporting event around the world, Coke went into virtual hiding in Greece during the fall of 1990; its logo and jingles disappeared like airline advertising after a plane crash. As recently as last summer, at the European Basketball Championships in Athens, Coke was the brand that dared not speak its name; the placards inside the arena advertised Coke's clear sibling, Sprite.
If the Olympics had gone instead to Melbourne or Manchester, the anger in Athens might have been more muted. But there has been much resentment of things American since the 1984 L.A. Olympics, when the Yanks hung a price tag on that sacrament of the Games, the Olympic flame, selling off sponsorships for each leg of the torch relay. Before every Olympics, Greek athletes carry the flame from its source in Olympia to Athens, from which it is airlifted to that Olympiad's host country. But Greeks regarded L.A.'s fund-raising scheme as so profane that they refused to stage the standard Olympia-to-Athens ceremonial run. (The flame went by helicopter instead.) "We couldn't believe someone would sell the torch, inch by inch, meter by meter," says Theo Kotsonis, a reporter for Greek television. "It's crazy. Unthinkable."
The Athenians' campaign for 1996 invoked history and high ideals, but there was a bullying quality to it too. And though prominent Greeks each struck slightly different notes, the overall chord had the plaintive sound of entitlement.
"Can the world disagree that the mighty tree that over 100 years has spread its branches to the ends of the earth must acknowledge its roots?" asked movie director Michael Cacoyannis.