(ANSA) - ATHENS, FEBRUARY 15 - It was a great global sporting event made up of sport, an atmosphere of joy and aspiring hopes: the Athens Olympics of 2004 took Greece to the forefront of the world stage and its success beckoned a future of development for the country. But once the lights had been turned out after the closing ceremony, reality began to erase the dreams. Those sixteen days of high level sporting achievement also represented a financial bottomless pit and an unending succession of missed deadlines. Today, those Games are a dim memory and have turned into a spectre that haunts Greece's sporting scene. The Olympic team due to head to London, to take its traditional place at the head of the opening procession, will comprise a mere 75 athletes, just half the number that went to Beijing in 2008.
Eight years on, many of the grandiose facilities that were supposed to serve as the base for future generations of Greek athletes, especially those along the Athens coast, have been abandoned, their gates padlocked and chained. With their windows broken, they have turned into homes for tramps and packs of stray dogs.
Nobody has the money for their upkeep, no sales scheme has worked. Thieves have done a thorough job - even making off with the seats from some stadiums. On the eve of the 2004 Olympics, Greece was bursting with optimism. Having taken the European football cup, money was no object in cutting a fine figure before an onlooking world. The loosening of the purse strings seen then is thought to have made a significant contribution to the present crisis, which resulted from three years of botched preparations (1997-2000). Greece found itself facing the prospect of having the Games taken away and was gripped by a fit of panic preparations, with teams working around the clock up until the opening day. But the budget broke all bounds, ending up by presenting the country's taxpayers with a bill of nine billion euros, twice the estimate. There was no plan at all for what should happen afterwards, how any of these massive outgoings might be recuperated. Attempts were made to rent the buildings out, to sell them or to hand the management of decaying facilities over to private enterprise.
Then came the crisis, which sucked away what funding was left and brought Greek sport to its knees. Between 2005 and 2008, the state paid 30 million euros to prepare its Olympic team. The same sum was agreed for the four years that followed, but not a single payment was made between 2009 and 2010. The gymnastics team was unable to travel to Tokyo for the qualifiers. Then there were transport problems for the weightlifters, the sailors, the water polo team. The International Olympic Committee is paying for the training of the national women's water-polo team, the world champions in 2011.
Training facilities are falling to pieces. It rains through the ceiling at the indoor training centre at the Olympic Stadium and buckets are placed to catch the water. Here too, there is no money to maintain the roof.
This face of the Greek crisis was summed up in a few bitter words during a recent interview given by the head of the country's Olympic Federation, Vassilis Sevastis: "We have gone from heaven to hell. This is our reality. The country in which the idea of moderation was born has now gone beyond every limit".