The eyes of the world were on the Athens Olympic Venues in 2004 as the games finally returned home. As the birthplace of the Olympic Games, Greece took the opportunity to showcase its ancient capital in a modern way. Unfortunately, it nearly bankrupted them.
The ancient Olympic Games were athletic competitions between the city-states of ancient Greece, held in Olympia in honour of Zeus. The first Olympics has been dated to 776 BC and they continued even after Greece came under Roman rule. It was finally Theodosius I who suppressed them in 394 AD as he sought to spread Christianity across the Roman Empire. Like today, the ancient Olympic Games were held every four years and included a number of events.
In modern times, efforts to imitate the ancient Olympics date back to the 17th century. The Cotswold Games, or Cotswold Olimpick Games, were held in Chipping Campden, England between 1612 and 1852. They have since been revived. L’Olympiade de la République was an event held in revolutionary France between 1796 to 1798 using many of the disciplines from the ancient games. It was the first time the metric system was used in sport. Olympic games were held in Ramlösa, Sweden in 1834 and 1836, followed by an event in Stockholm in 1843. The Grand Olympic Festival was held in Liverpool, England between 1862 and 1867. In 1866, a national Olympic Games in Great Britain was organised at London’s Crystal Palace.
Efforts in Greece to revive the Olympics began after independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1821. A wealthy Greek-Romanian philanthropist, Evangelos Zappas, funded an Olympic Games in Athens in 1859. He funded the restoration of the ancient Panathenaic Stadium so that it could host all future Olympic Games. Events were held in 1870 and 1875.
In 1894, Baron Pierre de Coubertin was inspired to found the International Olympic Committee (IOC) after attending the Olympian Games of the Wenlock Olympian Society in Shropshire, England. The first meeting of the Olympic Congress was held from 16 to 23 June 1894 at the University of Paris and the decision was made to create an internationally rotating event which would be held every four years. Athens was chosen as the first host of what was to become the modern Olympic Games.
Evangelos Zappas and his cousin Konstantinos Zappas had left the Greek government a trust to fund future Olympic Games. This was used to partly fund the 1896 Athens Olympic Games at the Panathenaic Stadium. Greek businessman George Averoff and the Greek government provided the remainder of the funding. The Games brought together 14 nations and 241 athletes who competed in 43 events. The people of Greece were enthusiastic about the event and it was deemed a great success.
In 1900, the Olympics were held in Paris as part of the 1900 Paris Exposition and in St Louis in 1904 as part of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. Both events were seen as little more than sideshows and the Olympic revival was in danger of grinding to a halt. It was decided to host the 1906 Intercalated Games in Athens in an effort to reverse the decline. Although officially recognised at the time, it is no longer classed as an official Olympic Games. This event did however revive interest and the next Olympics in London in 1908 were a huge success.
As the centenary of the modern Olympic Games approached in 1996, many believed Athens to be the natural choice to host the event. However, it was Atlanta in the USA that would be declared the winner, a surprise to many, especially those in Greece. Atlanta had been deemed by some to be somewhat of an underdog given its confederate past and being coined a second-tier city by the American media. Their bid included a revenue sharing package and support from local companies such as Coca-Cola and Delta. This led some media outlets to suggest that Coca-Cola had paid to host the Olympics in their home city.
The Olympic Games did finally return to Athens in 2004 after beating Rome, Cape Town, Stockholm and Buenos Aires for the privilege. No expense was spared in the hosting of the games with a cost to the Government of Greece of €8.954 billion. Large scale infrastructural projects were undertaken across Athens including improving airports, roads, hospitals and access to archaeological sites.
A number of sporting venues had to be built from scratch. The Aquatics Center ran into problems and in an effort to finish on time, it was decided not to construct the retractable roof which had been planned. Despite the rush, all of the venues were completed on time, albeit with a budget overrun of 49%.
Despite a popular and successful Olympic Games, Athens 2004 left its mark on Greece. As the country began to struggle during the financial crisis of the late 2000s, the debt used to pay for the games began to weigh heavily on the Greek tax payers. Some experts suggested that the real cost to the country had been more in the region of €14 billion.
As the financial situation deteriorated, the venues began to fall into a state of disrepair. Hellenic Olympic Properties, the company tasked with managing the Olympic venues portfolio, struggled to find investors for the venues. Plans to turn the judo hall into an arts academy stalled, as did a plan to convert the weightlifting hall into university accommodation. The hockey and baseball stadiums were left abandoned and rotting. The canoeing and kayaking slaloms dried up. The velodrome and aquatic centre were abandoned. Most of the Athens Olympic venues were abandoned and left to decay.
The Olympic Stadium itself had already been in use as home to soccer teams AEK and Panathinaikos and so it continued to be used after the Olympics. It hosted a number of large concerts over the years. The Olympic Indoor Hall continued in use as a concert venue and basketball arena. It held the Euroleague Final Four in 2007 which was won by home team Panathinaikos. It also hosted the Eurovision Song Contest in 2006.
As Greece’s finances have begun to improve, Hellenic Olympic Properties has managed to find investors for many of the abandoned Athens Olympic venues. The Markopoulo Shooting Centre came under the ownership of the Hellenic Police and serves as a training centre. The Beach Volleyball Centre is an outdoor conference venue. The Goudi Olympic Hall was converted into the Badminton Theater in honour of the sport it hosted for the 2004 Games. The Aquatic Centre was eventually reopened as a competition venue. The Hellinikon Stadium, used for baseball, was converted into a soccer stadium for Ethnikos Piraeus FC but they moved to a smaller stadium in 2014. It is currently used as a refugee camp for those awaiting processing in Greece.
The issues surrounding the Athens Olympic venues raised questions about the legacy of venues after the Olympic Games are over. Subsequent bids now focus on the legacy of the infrastructure used to host the event and London 2012 and Rio 2016 were praised for their use of venues after the Olympics. Bids for Tokyo 2020 (postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic), Paris 2024 and Los Angeles 2028 were commended for their use of existing venues in their bids.