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A Big Fat Greek Triumph


As a Greek, Nicolas Nicola, Eastman Kodak Co.'s (EK) sales manager in Greece, was sure his country would be ready for the Olympics. Pretty sure, anyway. Nicola admits feeling nervous as he drove by the marathon route near Athens a few weeks before the event and saw workers frantically laying down pavement. There was plenty at stake for both Nicola's homeland and his employer: Kodak is a major sponsor. "For the sponsorship to be maximized, the showcase has to be ready," says Nicola.

Happily, it was. Greece defied the skeptics and the "My Big Fat Greek Olympics" jokes and presented Games that were worthy, even brilliant. Now, Nicola and 11 million compatriots are swelling with pride. The Games made Greece a "full-fledged member of the European club, finally," says Nicola. "What they have done for the national self-image is invaluable."

That's exactly the payoff Greece hoped for in return for its massive investment, which could hit $9 billion, or 5% of gross domestic product. Aside from an infrastructure makeover, including new highways, subways, and even beaches, Greece has polished its self-esteem as well as its world reputation. Forget stereotypes about disorganized Greeks. Security preparations proved adequate, and even the fussy Germans were impressed by touches such as overnight laundry service for athletes in the Olympic Village. "I have to say it all went a thousand times better than expected," says Stefan Forster, a former rower and member of the German Olympic Committee who accompanied his team to Athens.

WINNERS WITHOUT MEDALS

The results should include more foreign investment and higher living standards for Greece, still one of the European Union's poorer members. There already has been a boom in entrepreneurship as small businesses spiffed up their stores and bought new cars and equipment. At the least, 4 billion TV viewers have registered that Greece gets a lot of sunshine, and some will no doubt decide to visit. "If tourism doesn't skyrocket, we are doing something wrong," says Stephanos Vrakas, client coordinator at the exclusive Grand Resort Lagonissi near Athens.

There are other reasons to feel good about these Olympics. Ticket sales were tepid, especially compared with Sydney in 2000, but sponsors were thrilled with viewership, which was up more than 10% over the Sydney Games in 2000. NBC offered a record 1,200 hours of coverage around the clock on an unprecedented six network and cable channels. Surfers on the Web were swept up: NBCOlympics.com attracted 12.2 million visitors, a 230% increase over Internet traffic for the Sydney games. Says Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Universal Sports & Olympics: "By having so much coverage available throughout the day, a new generation of Olympics junkies was born this summer."

Some fans surprised themselves by learning to love such offbeat sports as badminton and handball. "These were the best Games overall from Adidas' perspective," says Erich Stamminger, head of global marketing for German sportswear maker Adidas-Salomon (ADDDY). The Olympics don't move goods as briskly as an international soccer tourney, he says, but by outfitting less popular sports such as wrestling, Adidas hoped to build its image as a maker of equipment for serious athletes. For its part, Coca-Cola Co. (KO) praises the Greeks' handling of the torch relay, turning it into a global event that spurred publicity. "We felt that was a big success," says Scott McCune, Coke's vice-president for sports entertainment and licensing.

The elaborate security preparations, costing $1.2 billion and including a $300 million communications and surveillance system, apparently deterred terrorists. "At some points we felt like the Maytag repairman, which is a great way to feel if you're in this business," says Robert N. Sikellis, managing director of Vance International/Decision Strategies, based in Oakton, Va., which provided security services and consulting to Olympics organizers and sponsors.

Indirectly, the Games even gave impetus to economic and political reform in Greece. The success of the Olympics provides a political bounce for the center-right government led by Kostas Karamanlis, who in March ended 23 years of nearly unbroken rule by the center-left. Now he has the political capital to carry out reforms such as cutting bureaucracy that stymies new business creation and revamping bankruptcy law to encourage more risk-taking.

UNDERDOGS

Most important, Athens delivered on its promise to bring the Games closer to their roots. True, there was something incongruous about wreaths of olive branches on the heads of beach volleyball medalists. But the Games had a human scale and feel and they represent progress toward keeping the Olympics from becoming unmanageably large. "The Games are not just about commerce. They need to be fun," says Jochen Zeitz, CEO of German sports apparel maker Puma, which sponsored the Jamaican Olympic team.

So what's not to like? Well, Olympics spending has already pushed Greece's budget deficit above EU limits, and sectors of the economy such as construction may cool off fast. Athens could be forced to raise taxes, which might hurt consumption and lead to slower growth after an estimated 3.8% in 2004. "Growth above 3% is good, but to catch up with the rest of Europe we need to grow much faster," says Paul Mylonas, general manager for strategy and economic research at the National Bank of Greece.

But Athens has struck a blow for all the other underdog countries that may want to host the Summer Games someday. That won't happen for more than a decade. Beijing will host in 2008, and 2012 will go to one of five wealthy-nation cities in contention, with Paris the apparent front-runner. For 2016, there is already talk of bids from the likes of Thailand, Chile, and the Netherlands, according to GamesBids.com, which follows the Olympics process. See you at the decathlon in Bangkok? After Athens, it's not out of the question.

By Jack Ewing in Frankfurt and Kate Carlisle in Athens


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