Ten Years Later, Athens Isn’t an Olympic Model for Boston

With Olympic infrastructure abandoned and in disrepair, Athens' Olympic experience isn't one for Boston to emulate as it mulls a bid.

Greece Olympics Athens Decay

Trash and dirty water fill an abandoned training pool at the Olympic Village in Athens. Credit: Associated Press

As Boston debates whether a successful bid to host the summer Olympics would help or hurt the city, they often point to other cities’ experiences for ammunition, and well, here we are at the 10th anniversary of the Athens games this week, a city few Olympic supporters in Boston are striving to mimic.

A recent Reuters piece marked the decade since the Olympics returned to their ancient and modern hometown with descriptions and images of Olympic facilities fallen into disrepair:

For Greeks who swelled with pride at the time, the Games are now a source of anger as the country struggles through a six-year depression, record unemployment, homelessness and poverty.

Greece has struggled to generate revenue from the venues.

“Celebrate for what?,” said Eleni Goliou, who runs a grocery store in the capital. “They spent money they didn’t have – our money, taxpayers’ money – on a big party. You see any money left for a celebration?” she asked with a shrug.

Of course, the better model for Boston is probably Atlanta, the last U.S. city to host the Summer Games. Eighteen years later, reviews about that event’s impact on the city are more mixed. Recent stories in Boston media have focused on the lessons to be learned from ’96. Concerns about facilities fallen into disrepair and the displacement of low income residents are countered with success stories, like Turner Field, an Olympic Stadium turned home of the Atlanta Braves.

Any city facing an Olympic bid is going to balance the romantic idea of broadcasting their city to the world with the fear that it will leave them worse off in the long run. Images from Athens ten years later don’t do much to help the latter. Of course, Athens faced struggles that Boston might not if it were to win the Games. Greek officials have been criticized as much for the aftermath of the games as for the original execution—they failed to smartly repurpose the Olympics infrastructure, leaving images of abandoned facilities as potent symbols of the misguided wish to host the event. And Greece has been hit with hard times thanks to the world financial crisis that cast a retrospectively gloomy light on the vast public expenditures required to host the Games.

Both of those are situations that Boston would hope to avoid in the years following a prospective Olympic Games. And if the city moves forward with its bid, nothing should make them more determined to do so than a ten year anniversary in Greece marked mostly by regret.