Taking Stock / To Athens, the Gold

ATHENS - The hordes of Israeli businessmen taking advantage of the summer break to drop by the Olympic Games in Athens are green with envy. Greece is just two hours by plane from Tel Aviv. Israel and Greece are both small Mediterranean countries with roughly the same weather; Israel has almost 7 million people and Greece 10 million. They are, in short, comparable.

But just five years ago the Greek economy was lagging far behind Israel's and today the country proudly hosts a stunning Olympics. If you'd visited Athens a year ago, you'd never have believed it would be ready to host the Games in August 2004. And if you hopped over six months ago, you'd be sure of it - those Greeks would never be ready in time, no chance.

Infrastructure works were bogged down in mid-project, half the city had been dug up, dirt was flying everywhere, literally and figuratively, and the taxi drivers were still merrily cheating every tourist to cross their path.

But they made it. They stepped up the pace and the Athens we found this week was a brand new city. The airport was gleaming, spanking new, gigantic, easily able to compete with any major aviation hub in Europe or America. There was a new highway system, and traffic in the city, usually an aggravating nightmare, flows like a river. The new subway stations are big, impressive, in a word - beautiful. Athens doesn't look like Athens any more. It looks like Barcelona or Paris.

In Grecian dust

Today, a week before the Games end, it can be said loudly and clearly that this is one of the best Olympics ever. There were no major mishaps. Here and there you run into an unfinished road, or a subway station lacking that final coat of paint where a section is messily boarded up, but by and large the machine is purring along.

Traffic streams, the new stadiums are astonishingly lovely, the shops and restaurants in the city centers are positively European. In the 1990s, Israelis looked down on Athens. Today Athens has left us gasping in its dust, and make no mistake, it isn't only because of the Olympics.

The Games merely showcase its triumph. The ability of a country like Greece, which has the smallest economy of any of the countries that ever hosted the Games, to launch a project of these tremendous dimensions so quickly has to arouse unpleasant feelings among Israeli visitors. Sour feelings not about the hosts, but about Israel's economic paralysis, its terrible, backward infrastructure, the subway we'll never have, the ugliness of Tel Aviv.

The Greeks know perfectly well that without the Olympics, their capital's infrastructure would probably not have been upgraded like that. Even in ten or twenty years, they wouldn't have got what the Games now brought them in three.

That's the great thing about the Games - politicians can't sell hot air ahead of elections and forget all about it. There's a deadline and it has to be met. End of story. As for the bottom line, the Greeks seem likely to cover most of their costs, even though ticket sales were slower than anticipated.

Alex Giladi, one Israeli wearing two hats at the Olympics - as a member of the Israeli Olympic Committee, and as VP at NBC, which bought the rights to broadcast the Games - told us yesterday that going by contracts with advertisers and rating figures, the acquisition of the rights was an economically sound move.

Giladi admits the low attendance at the stadiums, the "bald spots" in the bleachers so evident on television, could dampen enthusiasm among viewers at home. But up to now the Olympics won higher ratings than expected and its economic success would be commensurate.

Barcelona effect

Over in Athens, the Olympic Committee and NBC are already breathing easier. That can't be said for Greece itself just yet, though. The big question remains as to whether Greece's massive investment in infrastructure will pay off. Will the Games boost Athens into a whole new economic league, as happened in Barcelona after the 1992 Olympics? Or, will it merely leave some confetti and giant debts scattered around?

Economists and tourism experts in Greece are dubious about a repeat of the Barcelona act. The investment in Athens came in billions of dollars over initial expectations - ultimately the bill will total some $10 billion. Much of that investment will go down the drain.

In fact, after the Games, tourism may even slump, as Greece has been suffering from the expensive euro since joining the EU currency bloc. On Wednesday Greece published the data about its national debt, which won the high jump award because of the Olympian effort in preparing for the Games. For the first half of 2004, the national debt increased 10 percent to $195.7 billion.

Tourists and businessmen visiting to watch the athletes are in awe of the city's progress. But the locals are already trembling in fear of the post-Olympian shocks, about dashed expectations of heightened tourism, about heavy tax hikes, about politicians returning to their tired old economic mismanagement.

In short, the Greeks are afraid that the bill will arrive faster than a winning 100-meter sprinter. But even here, comparison with Israel leaves us looking pretty sick. Euro-bloc economists warn that Greece's borrowing to prepare for the Games lifted is national debt beyond 100 percent of GDP, which is dangerous.

Over here, our national debt is 110 percent of GDP without any Games or even hosting a regional pick-up-sticks competition, with no infrastructure, and with no particular reason to hope for a boom in tourism. Over here, until the Netanyahu era, our national debt just ballooned and ballooned to cover government deficits and to keep the massively bloated public sector in clover.

In short, we and the Greeks may have much the same financial starting point. But they now have a sparkling new city with a new infrastructure, and high hopes. Here, any investment in infrastructure lies far in the future and our hopes have long since withered away.