Olympic planners face new obstacle - anti-American ire

Sunday, June 8, 2003

ATHENS, Greece -- Large patches of fresh paint cover the anti-American graffiti and obscenities scrawled near the U.S. Embassy during the near-daily protests of the war in Iraq.

But the touchups can't hide the reality of Greece's split personality: strategic Western ally on one hand, hotbed of America bashing on the other.

The 2004 Athens Olympics -- just 15 months away -- may also require Greeks to face dual impulses.

Greeks hold deep traditions of hospitality and pride as custodians of the Olympics' ancient roots. But many Greeks rarely pass up a high-profile chance to criticize the United States, which is widely perceived in Greece as a global bully with a checkered history in the region.

Nothing to worry about?

Olympic planners and others insist Greeks will rise above their political prejudices and be gracious hosts. Yet -- as the Iraq war showed -- many Greeks harbor deep resentment toward the United States and the world political situation in August 2004 could again feed the protest fervor.

"The Olympics are the Olympics, not the American games," said John MacAloon, an Olympic historian at the University of Chicago. "There's nothing you can do about the anti-war feeling. Greeks don't make any connection between the games and American foreign policy."

Some Athenians agree.

"The Olympic Games are for the whole world," said Vassilios Patakias, owner of a moving company. "What does sport have to do with politics?"

University student Tassos Tatsis said Greeks who opposed the war blame President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, not the American or British people.

"There may be slogans shouted, but only from a few people, not everyone," he said.

Mihalis Tsinisizelis, a professor of international relations at the University of Athens, said anti-Americanism is always lurking in Greece, which is located on the edge of Europe and the Middle East.

"All this is in a dormant state and when there is a reason like Iraq, it comes to the surface," Tsinisizelis said.

Long-standing feelings

Greeks harbor anti-American feelings primarily over U.S. support of the 1967-74 military junta, which persecuted its leftist opponents. Many Greeks also believe Washington ignores the concerns of smaller and weaker nations.

In 1999, during a visit by then-President Clinton, battles between protesters and police turned downtown Athens into a riot zone.

Less than two weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, fans of the Greek soccer club AEK Athens tried to burn the American flag during a minute's silence held in honor of the victims, outraging the large Greek-American community.

During the Iraq war, thousands of Greeks staged protests around the country. In Athens, eggs and red paint were hurled at the U.S. and British embassies. The governing Socialist Party backed the demonstrations and even closed schools so students could attend the marches.

Stella Alfieri, an outspoken anti-Olympics activist, said people are planning protests during the games.

Groups of dissatisfied Athenians have for years tried to block the games by filing injunctions to stop construction of 2004 projects.

There has been no suggestion the U.S. team could stay away from Greece. But security concerns are high.

"Certainly we are aware that in times of war and international conflict that anti-American sentiment can arise and we will discuss it with our athletes as the games draw closer," said Darryl Seibel, a U.S. Olympic Committee spokesman.

The International Olympic Committee won't even contemplate the possibility of nation-bashing spoiling the games.

The Athens Olympics "will provide a unique opportunity for athletes from all corners of the globe to come together to enjoy sporting competition under the Olympic values of friendship, fair play and respect for one another," said IOC spokeswoman Giselle Davies.

A spokesman for the British Olympic Association hopes attitudes will have changed in Greece by the time of the games.

"I would be surprised if the Greek people were to boo any team coming into the Olympic stadium. I can't see that happening," Philip Pope said. "This is a celebration of sport and the celebration of the greatest athletes on earth wherever they come from."

Athens 2004 organizers insist that Greeks will be hospitable to everyone.

"The Olympics are above politics. It's what unites humanity, not what divides us. This will be the spirit of the 2004 Olympic Games," said chief organizer Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki.

But the strong anti-war feelings have blurred some lines.

"I think the Americans are disgusting, cruel and cowardly murderers of the people," said composer Mikis Theodorakis, who wrote the score for the 1964 movie "Zorba the Greek."

In a letter supporting anti-war rallies, he added: "From now on, I will consider anyone who, for whatever reason, has any dealings with these barbarians to be an enemy."

Award-winning film director Theo Angelopoulos joined calls by Greek filmmakers for a boycott of American movies. Consumer unions and anti-globalization groups urged consumers to shun American products.

Organizers of a major Greek book festival dropped Britain as the featured nation because of its key role in the Iraq war.

A recent survey in Greece found that 77.5 percent of respondents have a negative view of the United States, compared with 56.7 percent in November 2002. Only 5.4 percent had a positive view. There was no margin of error given.

Politics has disrupted the Olympics in the past.

In 1976, some nations -- mostly African -- boycotted the Montreal Games over apartheid in South Africa. In 1980, the United States led a boycott of the Moscow Games to protest the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. Then, the Soviet Union and 13 allies did not attend the 1984 Los Angeles Games as payback for the Moscow snub.

Greek writer and social commentator Nikos Dimou sees a peculiar silver lining in the current anti-American sentiment: Things couldn't get any worse.

"I don't see it easing off much, but I don't see how it could increase because it's already at the maximum," Dimou said.

And the fickle character of the Greeks may help as well.

"One good thing the Greeks have, good and bad, is they don't have long memories," Dimou said. "We are very emotional and we don't see politics as a rational situation. For us, all things are issues of love and hate."

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