If Zeus Were Rich...

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The twisted socialist chauvinism of Herr Hitler — and the cinematic skills of his court cinematographer, Leni Riefenstahl — have a great deal to answer for in setting the precedent that de Coubertin’s already statist modern Olympics should be embraced as THE sacred rite of Hegelian celebration, regardless of the expense involved to the citizenry at large.

But, really, the poor old Greeks themselves seem to have been the ones to take matters to a whole new level of excess, as the following article helps illustrate:

“Six months after the Athens Olympics, all is not well. Around the canoe-kayak course, in the city that hosted the world’s ‘unforgettable, dream games’, lights that illuminated the site now swing, hopelessly, from cords of broken wire. It is hard not to miss the galloping necrosis enveloping so many of the 36 venues either purpose-built or upgraded for the Games… the neglect does not end here.

On the other side of the Olympic facility, in the inner sanctum of the world-class basketball hall, the roof is leaking. Buckets, dexterously placed around its carpeted stadium, collect droplets the size of large coins. Across town, on the ancient Marathon route, the drains are clogged. They are also blocked at the multi-million-pound building that served as the press centre during the Games. And, at the rowing centre in Skoinias, the waters have turned stagnant brown. There, officials wonder what to do with a facility now widely decried as an environmental disaster.

One of the smallest nations ever to host the globe’s biggest sports event, Greece had hoped the Olympics would transform its citizens’ lives as never before. Instead, they are discovering that the 16-day bonanza may have been pure folly.”

Truly, to quote the words of Xenophon Zolotas, long-serving Governor of the Bank of Greece and Prime Minister of his country:

“Political magic has always been anti-economic.”

Not that, even as we write, this is dissuading the likes of the British, French, and Yankee state-worshippers from wining and dining the monstrous IOC committee members at tax-payers’ expense, in the hope of getting the 2012 "award."

After all, think of the jobs (and the graft) to be distributed!

Think of the glistening, multi-billion dollar structures soaring into the sky — each of them glazed with hundreds of Bastiat’s “broken windows” — all at the direction not of a free market busily allocating scare resources to individual needs, but at the — well, Olympian — behest of an all-seeing central planner mouthing hypocritical words about “urban regeneration” and the “politics of aspiration.”

Think of the tantalizing — if specious — Keynesian promise that this will boost “growth” and so help ensure re-election.

Think of the vote-grubbing photo-ops to be taken, as the ingratiating politicos and the semi-literate, millionaire athletes (taking time out from negotiating lucrative clothing endorsements and faking blood tests) fawn over one another for the benefit of the press pack.

Think of that ultimate moment when, “die Fahnen hoch” and anthems blaring martially in the march past, the stadia filled with the mass-hysterical and the world’s couch potatoes pausing momentarily in mid ring-pull, the Dear Leader can stand, enshrined in the reflected glory of it all.

Ahh — what sweet, historic rapture for men so wracked with ambition and riven by the unrequited love of their posterity as are our world’s governing elite!

For which elected Prime Minister would be humble enough not to recall the evil splendours of Berlin 1936? Which democratic president would not, for just a moment, tease himself with the thought that he was briefly on a par with Caesar?

But, you might protest, surely something positive has emerged out of all those effusions of concrete and reinforced steel?

Actually, it turns out that, for Athens, too, this was more of a case of “collateral damage” than of ancillary benefit, as the Kathimerini newspaper reports:

"The government’s delay in finding post-Olympic uses for the sports venues is putting a heavy economic burden on the national economy. Annual maintenance estimates hover around €90 million… In the meantime the Olympic projects are left to decay.”

Moreover, it is not only the sports venues themselves that have failed to yield much of a return since the Games ended. For example:

“A tram line, built at a cost of more than €300 mln and seen as the saviour of the traffic-clogged capital’s transport system, has not caught on with the public because of the snail’s pace at which it runs and what commuters say are too frequent stops. Authorities said this week that only 50,000 of an initial target of 100,000 passengers took the tram daily.

One of the city’s architectural landmarks for the Games, a pedestrian bridge designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, who also built the stunning roof over the Olympic stadium, has been shut for more than a month because of structural problems, only eight months after it was inaugurated.

Even the newly built Agios Kosmas sailing centre, meant to be turned into a 1,170-berth marina, shows signs of abandonment despite the Greek sailing federation’s repeated requests to move on to the site permanently.”

All of this came with a price tag estimated at some €9 billion — or around two years’ combined earnings for the whole Athens stock index and equivalent to over 5% of GDP. In a testimony to how the State can rush in where free market angels fear to tread, this gargantuan waste was fully five times the original estimate made when the bid was submitted.

But, can Greece afford what the Observer (itself an enthusiastic supporter of London’s bid, of course) termed “an exercise in economic flagellation” and just write it off to bitter experience, not to mention use it as an unsurpassable excuse for party political finger-pointing?

Well, hardly, for the Greeks — already on the hook for the outrageous fiddling of their macro-statistics — have just revised up last three years’ budget deficits substantially — the last, for 2004, to an eye-popping and Stability Pact-sundering 6.1% of GDP.

Making the books balance again is thus becoming as problematical as it is urgent, so — alas! — a deal of wholly avoidable social strife is in prospect for some time to come.

Down there in Hades, the ever-scabrous Aristophanes, is probably putting the finishing touches to another rollicking satire on the whole farcical episode, for he it was who had Poverty once declaim:

“Why, Zeus is poor, and I will clearly prove it to you. In the Olympic games, which he founded, and to which he convokes the whole of Greece every four years, why does he only crown the victorious athletes with wild olive? If he were rich he would give them gold”

But even if Zeus weren’t such a cheapskate, do you suppose he’d be happy to contribute 850 tonnes of the stuff? After all, at current prices, that’s pretty much what the four-week frippery of the 2004 Games cost the latter day sons of Hellas.

As Euripides famously put it: "Whom the Gods would destroy, They first drive mad."

Indeed.

Sean Corrigan [send him mail] is an investment analyst in Switzerland.

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