Today's date:
Fall 2003


The Olympics Return to Athens

Dora Bakoyannis is the first woman mayor of Athens. Her first husband was a victim of November 17, the terrorist group that was finally arrested after 27 years of activity; her father has been a prime minister. Her challenge now is to lead the city of Athens in the third millennium. Greek NPQ editor Michael Skafidas met with the newly elected mayor recently at her office in Athens, almost a year before the Olympics are about to transform the oldest European capital forever.

NPQ | Like Berlin 13 years ago, today's Athens is the most impressive construction site in Europe. There is a governmental endeavor of pharaonic proportions to upgrade, reconstruct and redefine a city that only 15 years ago felt closer to Mexico City than to Rome -- high pollution, nonexistent infrastructure, chaotic traffic. All this is changing now.

One year before the Olympics Athens is going through a major face-lift and finds itself in the crossroads of globalization. Starbucks is replacing the old coffee shops; its new airport, just as its new expanding subway system, is functional and shining; past and present coexist in this Greek metropolis of 5 million.

However, its future is not yet as clear: Will the city of the daughter of Zeus, Athena, follow the model of modern cities that defy their history and adopt fully to the rhythm of the global economy? Or will it try to maintain its personal character and identity as the oldest capital in the Western world?

DORA BAKOYANNIS | A combination of the two. Our challenge is the preservation of the Athenian identity. When I say "Athenian identity" I don't mean only the antiquities -- the Acropolis, the museums -- or the ancient tradition, as many of your international readers may think. Athens has a timeless cultural identity that needs to be known. A modern city is not reflected only by its history or its new buildings. There is a creativity going on by the younger Athenian generation that changes the old patterns and reinvents the present. There is also a new affluence that changes the landscape, and there is the daily existence of a lively expanding capital that literally never sleeps. On top of it, of course, remains the challenge of the Olympics. The city of Athens must be ready in the little time that is left, and, I admit, I would not be as stressed if all this "endeavor of pharaonic proportions" as you called it, did not need to be completed within the next year. And even before you ask me I can tell you: yes, this endeavor will be completed on time.

But my goal as a mayor, who has partial responsibility for the upcoming Games after the government and the Olympic Committee, goes beyond the technocratic level. There is also the human element that goes beyond the aspect of modernity and restructuring. I aspire to reinforce the tradition of Athens as a place known for its everlasting spirit of hospitality. I want to make sure that every single visitor in the summer of 2004 will feel at home in this city of the world. Don't forget that Athens has always been a multicultural capital. And it will remain so.

NPQ | The Dutch architect and urban thinker Rem Koolhaas has noted the emergence of the "metapolis" or generic megacity. Unlike classic cities with distinct identities, these new post-urban zones are overflowing with population and global culture like the Internet in which many different realities exist simultaneously. Is Athens becoming a metapolis, helped along by the Olympics?

BAKOYANNIS | It's getting there. Historically speaking, Athens has always been in the crossroads of civilizations, a place where strong influences that came through the centuries were either accepted or rejected by the Athenians. As a city and as a people, we stand on the most delicate point in Europe. Geographically, we are very close to all the new member countries of the European Union, we are also very close to Asia and to Africa. Simultaneously, we have a completely European consciousness. So, that blend that exists in us, the Athenians, is the very aspect that makes Athens such a unique city.

Naturally we face the problems and challenges of the "metapolis," to use Koolhaas' word: the increasing number of immigrants seeking work; the redefinition of society in the time of speed and technology; the balance between the legacy of our past and our vision of the future. Right now we deal with the problems that might rise from a lack of integration of the immigrants, and that's why the goal of Athens is to find a new way to respond to the whole of its citizens regardless of their identity.

I don't belong to those who are afraid of globalization! Undoubtedly there are negative sides to it. But there are also many positive ones: the speed of information and communication, the new ways of communicating, the financial prospects of such a global ambition. Athens is part of this ambition. It is going to cooperate very nicely with Beijing. We are holding the Olympics here today, Beijing is holding them there tomorrow. Once upon a time, the cooperation between us would have been a very difficult affair. Today it is a only a fact. And a very pleasant one. We gain from opening up as a city and as a society. Opening up to new influences, new ideas and new realities.

NPQ | "Athens is the queen of the millenniums," a Greek historian once claimed. The metropolis of the Greeks went down from the top of its golden years to the bottom of its Ottoman centuries, always with pride, to emerge again as an independent city which for most of the 20th century suffocated under the shadow of its past: a ghost of her glory; a confusing blend of East and West, past and present, myth and history, tradition and modernity, pride and compromise. It was all about a lost dream until the moment the Athenians realized that the Olympics are finally coming back home. You think there is a second chance for Athens to become a metropolis of the world again?

BAKOYANNIS | "Metropolis of the world" is perhaps an exaggeration. History has run its course. There are cities much bigger, more powerful and more affluent than Athens with a much stronger influence. And the Olympics are very important but also ephemeral. For me the focus is also the day after the Olympics. The lights won't go out then. What is really important to me, and that's something we are working on now, is to bring back to Athens the reconsideration for the values and the principles under threat in our global world. Our goal is to re-create the school of Athens where intellectuals from all over the world would be able to participate in a forum for the new millennium, where luminaries would gather to discuss new ideas, reformation of the old ones, and reflect on the values of an era that sometimes leave the younger generation disillusioned and puzzled. Especially nowadays, when the problem of terrorism has emerged as a global threat, a threat whose forceful logic is totally foreign to the peaceful Greek mentality.

If the Greek civilization could be proud of one thing, it is the fact that throughout the centuries it supported and represented the exact opposite of the fascist mentality of terrorism. And that is something we need to discuss again. Because at the end of the day, nothing can be taken for granted as far as democracy, values and principles are concerned. It's always a battle that needs to be won daily.

NPQ | In the early '90s Greece became notorious for its reputation as the "black sheep" of Europe. Negative publicity and dark commentary by the international media were a routine for the government. But there is a spectacular reversal of impressions in euro days. From a "black sheep," Greece has gone all the way around to be regarded as the good example of Europe. Is this something Greek politicians should be proud off?

BAKOYANNIS | I would say yes, because we worked very hard for it. It was a very unfair image, for it did not reflect the reality of Greece, and its residues remain to this day. Greece is a European country with a potential that, it's true, remains partially unexploited. But at the same time it has always been a country eager to embrace the challenge of the future. Its good standing at present is the best proof. Most of its international critics had not even visited here before they condemned it. When they did visit, most of them changed their minds. It's one thing to paint a picture of a culture you've never experienced in person, and another thing to actually visit it and let presumptions and prejudice go altogether.

Also, most of the people abroad do not realize that Greece is a country that went through many shocking experiences during the past century: world wars, civil wars, dictatorship, hardships. Especially civil war is the worst thing that could happen in a society. It takes so much time for the wounds to heal. So many accumulated bitter experiences in such a small country. But finally the wounds are healed, and the younger generation of Greeks is relieved of that burden. And that is the reason why Greece is becoming herself again. It's not a miracle; it's a result of time. The older generations keeps the memories and the younger ones pursue the future of a modern country. Where there used to be bitterness and gloom, now there are optimism and self-confidence. What the young people did was to let the bad things of the past go while keeping the good ones. Tradition is something that they kept.

NPQ | The role of a mayor has been redefined in the global time you refer to. The Giuliani era, one might say, has redefined a mayor's job description. Would you agree with that?

BAKOYANNIS | Undoubtedly, the Giuliani era has left a mark. (Former New York City Mayor Rudi) Giuliani, by necessity following the tragedy of 9/11, created the model for the new mayor in a changing world. In Europe right now the role of a mayor is undergoing a similar transformation. Mayors are active political figures with strong views on domestic and international policies, but at the end of the day they are politicians who chose local government for the very reason you just mentioned: They want to be closer to human needs.

Personally, after 14 years in the Greek Parliament, having been part of the ruling party as well as of the opposition, I chose to become a mayor at a moment when politicians must bridge the widening gap between them and the citizens. It's a sign, a need and a requirement of our time. And the mayoral position is a good place to start. A democracy remains good only when citizens are participants. The local government can achieve that much easier than the national government.