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The Newest Wonder of the World: The Ruins of Modern Greece


ATHENS—Georges Kalaras used to view with pride the sports hall built near his home here for the 2004 Olympic competition in rhythmic gymnastics and ping pong. Now, he gets mad every time he jogs by.

"Look, it's locked!" shouted the 38-year-old Mr. Kalaras, who works for the Athens city water company. Two stray dogs tangling with each other behind a padlocked metal fence accounted for the only activity in the complex, which seats 5,200 people.

Mr. Kalaras figured the steel and glass hall, costing taxpayers $62 million, would provide recreational space in his neighborhood. Officials envisioned concerts or shops.

Instead, when the Olympic torch went out after the Athens Summer Games six years ago, the doors closed here, as well as at many of the 30-odd other sites built or renovated for the Olympics that summer.

The vacant venues, several of which dominate parts of the city's renovated Aegean coastline, have become some of the most visible reminders of Greece's age of excessive spending. Sites range from a softball stadium and kayaking facility to a beach volleyball stadium and a sailing marina.

As Greece sifts through the wreckage wrought by its enormous public debt, which sent tremors through world finance in recent months, the Athens Games are once again unifying this nation—this time as a target of criticism. They cost an estimated $7.4 billion to $14 billion, minor in light of the more than $370 billion of public debt, but that hasn't mitigated the resentment.

"The Olympics are back in the conversation," says Yiannis Pyrgiotis, who heads the state agency in charge of finding profitable ways to use the facilities. "They're like a ball in a field with everyone kicking it."

Even boosters of the Olympics are having second thoughts.

George Tziralis, a technology investor, in 2007 co-authored a glowing report declaring the venues as "greatly improving the quality of life of the inhabitants of these areas, providing valuable resources to the community and the economy."

On a recent afternoon, staring at a pile of bricks on the unfinished entrance behind a locked metal fence encircling the Olympic sailing marina, he was less upbeat.

"I hope you're calling this article 'The Nonsense of the Olympics,'" he said. Boats filled about a third of the 120 slips at the marina, which remains closed to people who aren't boat owners.

Later, Mr. Tziralis, 28, gestured out the window of his Opel Corsa at a huge, locked complex of mostly vacant Olympic properties, located on the former site of the city's old airport.

"There's no way there shouldn't be a park here six years after the Games!" he shouted.

That complex, which cost taxpayers $213 million, includes stadiums for field hockey, softball and baseball—sports with little or no following in Greece. The facility for canoeing and kayaking slalom at the site was to become a water amusement park. It didn't.

The officials who organized and ran the Games think the ganging up on the Olympics is unfair.

They also point out that Athens is not alone: Beijing still hasn't figured out what to do with its massive stadium built for the Olympics, called the Bird's Nest.

"It's an easy target to blame the Olympics, since they can't defend themselves," says Spyros Capralos, who was general secretary of the Games and held various leadership positions in the organizing and bid committees.

The biggest problem, he and others agree, was that too many permanent structures were built.

Since Greece was late in its preparations—the International Olympic Committee in 2000 admonished the country to hurry up—the focus was on the Games, not on what came after them.

Given the time pressure, it was easier and sometimes quicker, but more expensive, to build permanent structures than temporary ones.

There wasn't enough time in some instances to conduct a bidding process, driving up costs further. No one considered the costs of operating the sites after the Games, Mr. Capralos says.

The national sports bodies also encouraged permanent structures, believing they would promote participation in those sports after the Games. With the exception of rowing, that hasn't happened.

"Greeks like sports, but they like smoking more," Georgios Kasselakis, 24, explained on a recent afternoon at one of the city's countless outdoor cafés.

The IOC says it will take post-Olympic plans more into account when choosing a host city, but few believe this changes anything. Rio de Janeiro had virtually no venues built when it was selected last year for the 2016 Olympics, but the IOC "wanted the Games in South America," says David Wallechinsky, an Olympics historian.

Mr. Capralos, now chairman of the Athens Stock Exhange as well as president of the Greek Olympic Committee, argues that people have forgotten the huge improvement in the city's infrastructure, including refurbishing and expanding the city's subway and railway and adding major new highways. The measures, which accounted for more than half of the total costs associated with the Games, have loosened the snarl of the city's notorious traffic.

And some of the venues are being used, mostly the renovated ones, such as by the country's popular basketball teams. The new badminton stadium is now a theater, recently featuring the Broadway musical "Evita."

But the fiscal woes outweigh these successes. A range of estimates, varying depending on which infrastructure projects are included, echo the accounting uncertainty around the federal deficit.

Mr. Pyrgiotis, who heads the agency overseeing the use of the venues, figures the sites are losing about $12.3 million a year. Most of the vendors who have leased sites for other uses aren't able to pay.

In his cluttered office, he looked at framed photos on the wall showing Greek women in white robes lighting the torch to kick off the 2004 Games. He marveled at how much has changed since then.

"Maybe it's cultural," said Mr. Pyrgiotis, who has several degrees in architecture and city planning from M.I.T. "Our attitudes lead to these very difficult situations from which we try to disentangle ourselves."

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In Beijing, it's still a big tourist attraction, even if it is empty on the inside. It's a pretty spectacular looking thing at night, especially the water cube.


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