There are two great piles of ruin in Athens. The first, the best-known, is the Acropolis, a citadel perched on a tight rock in the ancient center of the city, a temple complex ordered built by Pericles in the 400s BCE, and which seems to still be under construction. The hill buzzes with frantic life, tourists zipping about between entertainers in 300 costumes. Every building is swathed in scaffolding, jutting cranes poke their heads between the columns, piles of blocks litter the pediments ready to be assembled again. It doesn’t look like a ruin being renovated; it looks like something that has been held up by strikes and funding setbacks, but which is, after twenty-five centuries, finally nearing completion, for a public that wants a Temple of Zeus no less now than it did then.
The other great ruin in Athens is the site of the 2004 Olympic Games. It couldn’t be more different. The whole site is full of a numinous silence, a respectful ossuary hush for the dead. Blocked off from the surrounding neighborhood of Marousi by train lines, highways, and fences, the place seemed chilly when I visited, even despite the dripping summer heat. Its strange architectural scribbles twisting lonely across vast tracts of withered scrub, dense patterns blistering under the skin of plastic signs, ghostly harmonies twanging out as the expressive steel arches bent in the wind. There were few signs of life: under the shade of Eirini metro station a small café serves sandwiches and bottled drinks, and in a bright red car near the stadium a security guard sat eating a large slice of pizza. Even these felt like trespassers, and so did I. Far more than the Acropolis, the twelve-year-old Olympic park seems ancient in its desolation, like the forbidden site of some divine retribution.
The Panathinaikon stadium in Athens was the venue of the first modern Olympics in 1896, and was used for archery and the finish of the marathon at the 2004 Athens Games. Photo by: Graham C99
This is what the Olympics do: they descend on a city from nowhere and everywhere all at once, and leave nothing but hollowness in their wake. They swoop across the world searching for cities to eat. Today in Rio, there’s a scavenger’s frenzy, a planet’s worth of flashing cameras ready to capture a mass display of human vitality. Six weeks from now, what will be left?
In London, where I’m writing, our Olympic park has seemingly fared a little better. It’s also ringed by fences and prowled by private security companies, but the grass is still trimmed and watered, and you can even see people wandering past the huge stadium we still don’t really know what to do with. But that goes for most of the park: we have it now, long after forgetting the Games, and so the authorities are forced into increasingly desperate attempts to find a use for the thing. Attempts have been made. On one grim drizzling ash-grey day I saw a ten-piece band playing frantic swing jazz from an inflatable stage, for an audience of three security guards and two audience members huddled under a marquee. As the rain came down in callous flecks, only a strange haunted look from one of the players, quickly repressed, betrayed the fact that these people had found themselves trapped in a vicious logic they couldn’t quite understand.
The 2012 Olympics were held in Stratford, in the east of the city, one of the slow, shabby, run-down working-class areas that Britain excels at producing. A place that seemed, like so many other tracts of concrete and piss-sodden underpasses and pubs with fraying carpets, to be suffocating in a perpetual sepia-toned fug. In other words, a place where people lived. The Olympics were supposed to regenerate the area, which they did: instead of tolerable dilapidation, the destruction is now total. Thousands were forced from their homes to build this park, many thousands more have been forced to leave since by the sudden bloom in house prices. Where they’d once lived, there are the luxury apartments of the former athletes’ village, pristine and soundless and blank, many of them empty, with plumy Dickensian names—Chobham Manor, Pudding Mill, Sweetwater, Marshgate Wharf—as a final insult, to mark the thing that they’ve destroyed and replaced with Anywhere, Planet Earth.