GREECE: Riding the Olympic wave
George Savvaides was fortunate to be posted to Washington in 2002, at a time of heightened international importance for Greece. First, Athens assumed the presidency of the European Union in the first half of 2003, putting Greece at the center of transatlantic relations during the times of tension created by the Bush administration's decision to go to war in Iraq.
And now Greece is once more in the international spotlight as it prepares for the Olympic Games in Athens, which will be held August 13-29.
For Greece this is a momentous time. Having bid to host the Games in 1996 on the centennial of their modern rebirth, but lost to Atlanta due to inadequate infrastructure and facilities for a modern Olympics, delivering a successful Games this year has become a matter of national pride.
And, of course, no other country can claim the same close association with the Olympic Games. They were born in ancient Olympia in 776 BC and continued for more than a millennium before Emperor Theodosius II put an end to them in 393 AD, judging them to be pagan.
It was the idea of the Games, a meeting of athletes to compete at the highest standard of excellence, thereby celebrating human achievement, that survived the centuries and provided the inspiration for their modern reincarnation, in 1896 in Athens.
Every Athenian is familiar with the magnificent Panathinaikon Stadium near the center of the city, first built by Lycourgos in the 4th Century BC and clad in marble by Herodes Atticus in the 2nd Century AD. It is a constant reminder of the eternal link between Greece and the Games.
This is where the 1896 Games were held, with 40,000 spectators watching 310 athletes from 13 countries compete in 44 events. Among the events was the first Marathon, run from the Aegean coastal city of that name where, in 490 BC, the Greeks defeated an invading Persian army. A messenger ran with the happy tidings all the way to Athens, some 26 miles, but dropping dead from exhaustion as soon as he had delivered the news. In 1896 it was a Greek runner, Spiridon Louis, who was first to cross the line in the Panathinaikon Stadium to finish the run from Marathon.
Greece has maintained a substantive link with the Olympics insofar as every four years an Olympic flame is lighted at Olympia from where it is carried by runners to the site of the Games. This year, the flame will be lighted on March 25. It will initially be taken to the Panathinaikon Stadium, where it will remain for 64 days before starting on a world tour that will take it to 34 cities in 27 countries on all the continents, including all the cities that have hosted the Games. The torch will travel to four U.S. cities in mid-June: Los Angeles (June 16), St. Louis (June 17), Atlanta (June 18) and New York (June 19).
It will then return to Athens to light the flame at the modern Olympic Stadium, where it will burn for the duration of the Games.
Ambassador Savvaides points out that since Greece is the smallest country to host a modern Games, the Athens Olympics has been a national effort.
The government is spending some $2.5 billion on the Games themselves, which it will recoup through sponsorships, TV rights, tickets, etc, and almost $6 billion on infrastructure projects, from building a new Athens airport and connecting highways and railroads, to expanding the Athens Metro network and adding a new tram line to the southern suburbs.
Also, since this is the first Summer Olympics since the September 11 terror attacks on New York and Washington, Greece is spending an unprecedented $800 million on security measures, including a force of 45,000.
Seven nations form a committee advising Greece on security (Australia, Britain, Germany, France, Israel, Spain and the United States). In a stroke of good fortune, Greece in 2002 finally broke up its main terrorist group, November 17, which first killed CIA station chief Richard Welch in 1975, and in following years assassinated some two-dozen other Greek and foreign officials and leading citizens. Its leaders and most of its members are now in jail.
Athens has been a virtual construction site for several years now as it prepares for the Games, but Greeks can see the benefits of a long-overdue overhaul and facelift of their overcrowded capital city. The area around the Acropolis has been reserved for pedestrian traffic and integrated with other historical sites and the adjacent old town of Plaka, while in many areas a number of older buildings have been renovated and billboards removed.
Some 200,000 visitors are expected to attend the Olympics, which will attract 10,500 athletes from 201 countries. The ambassador says that due to a limited number of hotel rooms in Athens, some 6,000 guests will be housed in cruise ships berthed in the adjacent port of Pireaus.
Also, tourists will be encouraged to take day trips into Athens from the popular Greek islands, and elsewhere, to enjoy events of special interest to them. There will be 60,000 volunteers, including a good number of Greek Americans and ethnic Greeks from other countries, to help make the Games run smoothly.
But the Games today are a global event, with hundreds of millions following the competitions via satellite TV and other media. To bring the Olympics to the world there will be 21,000 journalists (twice the number of athletes).
In addition to the many new sports venues that have sprouted around Athens, stadiums for Olympic-related sports, especially soccer, have been built or upgraded in Thessaloniki, Volos, Patras and Heraklion.
And, to tie the old to the new, ancient Olympia will be the venue for the shot put, the Panathinaikon Stadium for archery, and the original Marathon route the same for these Games.
Ambassador Savvaides says that Greece wants this Olympics to be fully in tune with the Games' original ideal, which included a focus on perfection of the human mind, body and spirit. That translates into a desire to make the Games less commercial and more cultural.
To this end, the government is spending $120 million on the Cultural Olympiad. The Cultural Olympiad is a program of international artistic events leading up to the Olympics and beyond, to the end of the year.
Greece has also pushed to revitalize the Olympic Truce, which in ancient times allowed the Games to proceed in times of war, with parties to a conflict agreeing to cease hostilities long enough for the athletes to get to and from the Games safely. A permanent secretariat for the Truce has been established in Athens, and, in cooperation with the United Nations, every effort is being made to get warring parties around the world to cease hostilities during the upcoming Games.
The European Union supports the Truce initiative, and on 3 November last year the United Nations General Assembly passed a unanimous resolution endorsing it.
The ambassador says the Games will be very good for Greece: "We expect the Games to boost the international profile of Greece immensely." This heightened profile should help Greece fulfill its role as a major regional player, in the Balkans, Black Sea region and Middle East.
He points out that already Greece is the main investor in the Balkan region, and the Greek government is spending $550 million in development aid for that region.
Greece is the most developed economy and the only member of NATO and the EU in the area, making it a natural ally for the United States in everything from security issues to regional economic development. Greece provides a stable counterweight to the Balkan tendency to instability.
The ambassador sees an ever more integrated Europe as an ever more important partner to the United States in global affairs. "We support all efforts that bring Europe closer to the United States," he says.
Athens also supports the Annan Plan for Cyprus, and Ambassador Savvaides says Greece is "reasonably optimistic" regarding renewed negotiations on Cyprus.
National elections in Greece on March 7 could see a change in leadership in Athens, but the ambassador says all parties support the Games and are committed to enabling preparations to proceed on their already very tight schedule, regardless of the election's outcome.
Curriculum Vitae of Ambassador George V. Savvaides
Born in 1945 in Athens
· Bachelor of Laws, University of Athens (1969)
· Bachelor of Political and Economic Sciences, University of Athens (1971)
· Master of Laws (LLM), Harvard University Law School, Cambridge, Massachusetts (1978)
· 1972 Joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Greece as Attaché
· 1974 Promoted to Third Secretary
· 1976 Consul in Boston
· 1977 Promoted to Second Secretary
· 1979 At the Foreign Ministry, Department of Bilateral Relations with the countries of the Middle East and Africa
· 1980 Promoted to First Secretary
· 1981 Consul General in Skopje
· 1983 Promoted to Counselor, Second Class
· 1983 At the Greek Permanent Delegation to NATO, Brussels
-1983 to 1987 Political Advisor
-1987 to 1991 Defense Advisor
· 1985 Promoted to Counselor, First Class
· 1991 At the Foreign Ministry, Head of Cyprus Section, Department on Bilateral Relations with Turkey and Cyprus
· 1991 Promoted to Minister Plenipotentiary, Second Class
· 1992 Director, Department on Bilateral Relations with Turkey and Cyprus
· 1994 Promoted to Minister Plenipotentiary, First Class
· 1996 Permanent Representative of Greece to NATO
· 2000 Promoted to the rank of Ambassador
· 2000 Secretary General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs
· 2002 Ambassador of Greece to the United States of America
Married to Maria Savvaides (née Polyzou), with one daughter, Ioanna
· Grand Cross of the Order of Merit, Republic of Cyprus (1993)
· Order of the “Madara Horsemen” I Class, Republic of Bulgaria (2000)
· Grand Cross of the Order of Merit, Republic of Italy (2001)
· Grand Cross of the Order of Phoenix, Hellenic Republic (2001)
· Grand Cross of King Leopold II, Kingdom of Belgium (2001)
· Grand Commander of the Order of the Cedar, Republic of Lebanon (2001)