"Who would deny to the Romans the principles of justice?" wondered Kostas Tsoklis, an artist. "To China, the discovery of silk? To the Arabs, numbers? To France, its kings? Who then, without remorse, could deny Greece the Olympic Games?"
Well, the IOC, for starters.
Hosting the Centennial Games, said Greek Olympic Committee president Lambis Nikolaou, "is our significant, basic right."
Actually, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the French nobleman who resurrected the Olympics a century ago, liked to say that they "belong not to Greece, but to the world."
On those few occasions when Athens got beyond some variation on its mantra of "I want my Maypo!" the city invoked its respect for "frugality and measure, those classically Greek virtues" and promised a Games along those lines. Indeed, an Athenian Olympics would have been refreshingly (if the use of this word might be excused) spartan. Athens organizers claim that they could have put on the 1996 Games for just $1 billion—that's about $600 million less than the bill Atlanta has run up—and could have covered the cost with revenue from TV broadcast rights, marketing, ticket sales and donations. There would have been official licensing and merchandising tie-ins, but probably no status for Wheel of Fortune as official game show.
Not a year ago it looked as if the Games would never return to their homeland. "We expect the IOC to let us undertake the organization of an Olympics not after a vote, but just by delegating them to us," huffed deputy minister of sports George Lianis.
And then a curious thing happened. Hubris—a Greek word—gave way to humility. A Greek-American doctor from Atlanta, Victor Polizos, helped bear the torch between Olympia and Athens. Samaranch personally invited Greek president Costis Stephanopoulos to the opening ceremonies in Atlanta. Unfortunately, Stephanopoulos was obliged to decline, citing previous engagements. And the Greek Olympic Committee quietly decided to bid for the 2004 Games.
The competition will be stiff: 11 other countries are readying bids for those Olympics, including South Africa, which represents the future every bit as much as Greece represents the past. But Athens seems to have become reacquainted with the Olympic credo—it's not the winning, but the taking part—that it helped reintroduce to the world a century ago. And that will count for something.