Olympic games on fire…

Article published on April 16, 2008
community published
Article published on April 16, 2008
On the 30th March 2008, the Olympic torch lit only one week ago, has now finished travelling around its native country Greece before leaving for Peking where the Olympic games will be held amidst a lot of controversy. These games have already been criticized all over the world recently.
At the same time in Greece, during the torch lighting ceremony an incident happened which surprised the whole world and the site where the ceremony took place also reminded the Greeks of the fires last summer. The Greek press has reported the reaction to this event.

So, since we are in Greece, the home of theatre, let’s present this play in three acts.

Act one: Preparation of the ceremony. An article from Eleftherotypia (see article) written before the ceremony had begun, suggests that the Greek authorities had taken very strict safety measures because of a potential risk from Tibetans demonstrators to use this mediatic event to protest against the Chinese government. The article also informs us that during the day the weather forecast predicted rain and therefore the ceremony had to start one hour earlier than scheduled (the traditionnal way of lighting the torch which has been used since the re-birth of the Olympic games by Pierre de Coubertin, is not possible if it rains,). Anyway, waiting for a glimpse of sunshine in the Greek sky, the Greek Culture Minister, Mr Liapis, started his speech for the Chinese representatives in a very nice diplomatic manner: “During this very simple ceremony keeping to all the old Olympic ideals, Greece is happy to pass the sacred torch onto China. The torch units people even of different cultures. Symbolically, the oldest western civilization is passing the Olympic ideals to the oldest oriental civilization. It’s important to mention at this point that the international relations in all domains between Greece and China is the best it has ever been.” Finally the program included a short tribute to the patrons and volunteers who contributed to restore the site to its natural beauty after the fires last summer. The Culture Minister was careful to inform everyone about the size of the task involved and explained that it’s not humanly possible to re-establish a burnt forest overnight. This was a very wise thing to do. Therefore to sumarise, the fantastic programme included excellent diplomatic relations with this year’s organizing country and with lots of new trees growing on Mount Kronion we had an excellent view on the surrounding landscape, almost restored to its natural beauty. The only worry was the naughty mediterranean spring rain on it’s way. Yes, but.

Act two: in the newspaper Kathimerini (see article) we can read a very unfunny description regarding the unfolding of the ceremony. To introduce the act it mentions that “three French journalists raised black flags to demonstrate against the current situation in Tibet”. But the journalist adds that “this incident didn’t darken the brightness of the ceremony” and she goes on to describe precisely what happened at different steps during the day, including some other arrests of demonstrators who tried, for example, to stop the athletes torch relay. Generally, the newspapers didn’t report much on what happened. They were worrying about some other issues.

Act three: The reaction. The articles we can find here are more controversial. Certainly the political aspect became apparently important through these reactions. According to the President of the Greek public television chain ERT after being questioned by a British journalist, the re-transmission incident was not deliberately censured (see article in ''Ethnos''). But a member of the Greek Olympic Committee considered that the actions of the French activists were shameful. Both of these positions upset Philippos Syrigou so he reacted aggressively in the edition of Eleftherotypia (26th of March) pointing out two things. Firstly, the fact that the Olympic Committe awarded the games to China in the first place leaves a bitter taste in the mouth because they closed their eyes, as usual, from the the question of democraty in China and only considered the economic success of this event. Secondly he also questions Robert Ménard’s act (the French journalist who raised a black flag during the ceremony). To prove a point, he reminds everyone to the extent over the years the Olympic games have been the opportunity for political boycottes or demonstrations: Berlin in 1936, Korea in 1988, and then Mexico 1968, all countries which used the games to promote their methods and actions in an hypocritical way. Then he continues with the example of Moscow 1980 and Los Angeles 1984 which demonstrated the enourmous tension between East and West. Don’t all these prove that the Olympic games are nothing but a political stage ? Next on the long list are other certain causes like the Black Americans in 1968, the Palestines in 1972 and also the African countries apartheid fight, starting from 1976. And now we can add the “Reporter sans frontières” last monday who confirmed that “in fact the Olympic games are the biggest world stage for political demonstrations” because they allow “every voice to be heard even in the most remote parts of the world”. That’s why he considers today that ignoring everything that is happening at the moment in Tibet is a sort of unacceptable censurship attempt. The Greek government regrets that the measures of high security didn’t work efficiently? The incident has indeed made the Greek security forces look stupid. But, the journalist concludes, it’s the same government that couldn’t avoid a complete cremation of the beautiful landscape around the ancient Olympic site. Why had these inefficient authorities the desire to prevent activists who simply wanted to inform us about justice, and not destroy things like the fire did? vue d'Athènes

Then we immediately think about the dark memory of the fires last summer that destroyed the Peloponnese region, where Olympia is situated. In Ta Nea we are reminded that the government totally underestimated the situation in hand. The ex-Culture Minister said at the time : “Some trees have been burnt”. The reality was that in fact millions of trees disapeared and dozens of people died. The environmental workers only planted and watered the area recentely to try and re-create a green paradise for the TV. The re-foresting process should have started a long time ago. A man, responsible for the works, confirmed that the work has only been done around the Pierre de Coubertin monument and along the relay route and also the workers on the ground haven’t had enough time to do everything because they started too late. The article finishes by asking the question: what is going to happen now the ceremony is over knowing the budget for the re-foresting project hasn’t yet been given? Others journalists mentioned that the local crowd who gathered for the ceremony were actually more worried about the re-foresting process done and not interested at all by the torch lighting itself.

Mixing both environmental and political issues together, Pantelis Boukalas writes ironically against the country sending the Olympic torch as much as the organizing country receiving it. He particularly criticizes the country where the Olympic games were born in an agressive manner when he speaks about the summer fires in 2007 : “We Greeks, we are so well organised that we failed to protect a heritage concerning the whole of humanity. We Greeks are also so deeply respectful of this heritage that we have exposed the ancient Olympia, the Mount Kronion and the museum to grave danger”, “we Greeks are completely incapable of organising the National Basketball Cup final without having to fill the stadium with thousands of policemen necessary to keep an eye on only a few supporters authorised entry”. And he concludes: “We will ban Tibetan activists to have access to the Olympia site because “there is a fire risk” and because “The Olympic games have nothing to do with politics” (these were the two arguments put forward by the Greek authorities).

The reason for a lot of attention given to the debate about the fires last summer is because of the current bad news about new fires in Greece, for example on the island of Skopelos, covered in the Eleftheros Typos edition (see article). This fire is very dangerous and is spreading very fast because of strong winds. The problem is that Greek security forces are not ready to fight the danger (see article in ''Ta Nea''), nor were they last year at the same period. The Prime Minister last March was very confident saying that all the measures had been taken to face the risk of fires: a few months later, the inefficient reaction of the security forces and firemen brought Greece to it’s knees with another human and ecological catastrophe. “The firemen need a 4,500 strong force and the government said it would recruit the 1,300 additional personnel this year. But these men won’t be able to work before next autumn because they need to finish studying first. That means that for the most dangerous period – summer – nothing will change. The government was also engaged in employing a supplementary 5,500 firemen only for the summer season from the 1st of April. But time has gone on and it seems there is no budget accorded for this in the state accounts.” Unfortunately, to add to this the number of winter fires is also frighteningly high at the moment .

Let’s finish with a joke, despite the threat one can feel if we think about the environmental situation in Greece. On a sketch edited by the newspaper ''Kathimerini'', there are Italian firemen looking worridly at the Greek coast: “Why are we on call, Antonio?” asks one of them. “Because the Greeks are lighting the torch in Olympia”, his colleague answers.