"And the Games of the 26th Olympiad are awarded to...At—"
Juan Antonio Samaranch had to go one extra letter before the disappointment could set in. Only then—after the International Olympic Committee president had intoned "Atlanta," not "Athens," with great ceremony in Tokyo on Sept. 18, 1990—could Greeks begin the bitter, recriminatory process of accepting that the 1996 Olympic Games, their Olympics, had been hijacked from the city in which the first modern Games took place.
So far as the Greek capital is concerned, they were stolen away by vulgarians with greenbacks in their pockets and grits in their teeth. The Centennial Olympics went not to the land in which they were invented in 776 B.C. but to a nation that only came into existence in 1776 A.D. They bypassed the city of Plato and Pericles for the town of Ted Turner and Lester Maddox. The symbolic homestead for the '96 Games won't be the Parthenon; it will be Tara.
Frankly, Athenians give a damn. A half-dozen years after the heartbreaking vote, vendors on the Plaka have discounted the last of their ATHENS '96 T-shirts. The IOC's decision cuts even deeper because three Olympic events (rhythmic gymnastics, soccer and volleyball) will take place in Athens—Athens, Ga.
How badly did Greece want the Centennial Games? In 1986 the Greek parliament unanimously adopted a resolution to do whatever it took to get them, and no one could remember the last time that fractious body had been unanimous about anything. Organizers presented—not mailed but hand-delivered—to all 88 IOC members a handmade, six-volume, six-videocassette, 1,100-page, 27½-pound dossier that made the case for their city. Southern hospitality, Shmouthern hospitality; the Athens bid committee promised to treat every one of 15,000 Olympic athletes and officials to a three-day cruise on the Aegean.
To help sell itself to the world, Athens trotted out every famous Greek but Zorba. From the late actress Melina Mercouri, formerly Greece's minister of culture, to Vangelis, who wrote the soundtrack theme to Chariots of Fire, to shipping magnates, politicos, artists, writers and even King Constantine II—who weighed in from exile in London—they added their voices to the Greek chorus.
The city didn't merely begin to build a new Olympic Stadium in an old olive grove in full expectation that the Games would come; it also broke ground on an adjacent velodrome and indoor and outdoor swimming centers, plus two sports halls for gymnastics, volleyball and table tennis. Elsewhere, organizers erected a tennis center and a shooting range, and began renovating a water polo and diving facility, a baseball stadium, a yachting basin, a canoeing and rowing canal, and a weightlifting venue. All before the IOC's vote.
In the eight years leading up to September 1990, Athens hosted 21 world and European championships. Even after losing the IOC vote, the city continued its hosting and bidding binge, staging the 1991 Mediterranean Games and international events in swimming, rhythmic gymnastics, cycling and basketball. The pièce de résistance came on April 6 of this year, when the city staged a full-scale reenactment of the 1896 Olympic Games at Panathinaikon Stadium, with a track and field program that included the long jump, triple jump, pole vault and Greek-style discus throw as well as sprints and a marathon. Even Samaranch showed up. If they can't win the Games outright, by Zeus, the Greeks seem determined to host an Olympics somewhere in time.
Alas, the folks who invented democracy had difficulty dealing with its consequences. Shortly after finding his country on the short end of the 51-35 vote, then President Constantine Karamanlis ripped the IOC for selling out values for value, ideals for deals. "The decision provokes rage and disgust." sputtered Sotiris Papapolitis, a member of the parliament. "This is unacceptable theft." Added Prime Minister Constantine Mitsotakis, "It was not Greece that was defeated but the Olympic ideal."
The average Greek in the street likened the IOC's selection process to Z, the Costa-Gavras movie about intrigue and corruption, and fingered several suspects, most notably commercialism and television. Coca-Cola, the multinational Olympic sponsor headquartered in Atlanta, caught the most Hellenic hell.