FOR THE ATHENS 2004 GAMES, ENVIRONMENTAL STAKES ARE HIGH
By ZOLTAN ISTVAN
National Geographic Channel
c.2003 National Geographic Channel
Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate

>    Long before the 2004 Summer Games,
> environmentalists and Olympics
> developers have dueled over whether a new venue
> imperils an environmentally
> sensitive, historically significant area 24 miles
> from Athens.
>    The Schinias Rowing and Canoeing Olympic Center
> is under construction
> in a marshland and pine forest _ the last
> significant coastal wetland in
> Attica. The center includes two man-made lakes each
> more than a mile long,
> stands for 15,000 spectators, dining facilities and
> a helicopter pad.
>    "It's an outrage," says Demetres Karavellas,
> director of the World
> Wildlife Fund, Greece, based in Athens. "The
> Schinias site hosts 176
> species of birds _ many that are rare, one locally
> endemic fish species and
> one of Greece's three remaining Stone Pine forests
> on sand dunes, a
> priority preservation habitat for the European
> Commission. Nothing should
> be allowed to be built there."
>    Biodiversity and history overlap at Schinias. In
> 490 B.C., Athens
> defended itself against invading Persians at the
> Battle of Marathon, which
> partly took place in the Schinias wetlands.
>    "It's just another reason why the Olympic Rowing
> and Canoeing complex
> should not have been built there, says Irini
> Gratsia, an archaeologist for
> the Hellenic Society for the Protection of the
> Environment and the Cultural
> Heritage, in Athens.
>    "Excavations were not carried out in full and
> now that the artificial
> lakes are there, it may be impossible to find all
> the remains," Gratsia
> says. "In addition, think of the symbolic value of
> the place. Would the
> Americans build a stadium on their Gettysburg
> battlefield for the Atlanta
> Olympics?"
>    For five years, environmentalists and
> preservationists have battled
> against the new site.
>    In partial response to the opposition movement,
> a presidential decree
> in 2001 created the National Park of Schinias, with
> specific allowance for
> the Olympics.
>    The Schinias complex is nearly complete, and a
> successful competition
> has already been staged on the new lakes.
>    The Olympics hardly represent the only threat to
> the environment in
> Schinias. Development has come in the form of a
> small airport, housing,
> farming and landfills. And motocross riders created
> trails in the area.
>    Olympics officials feel that they heeded the
> opposition.
>    "Archaeological and environmental issues were
> carefully considered
> beforehand," says George Kazantzopoulos, manager of
> the Athens 2004
> Olympics' environment department.
>    The new park, Kazantzopoulos points out, "gives
> far more protection to
> the area than there ever was before."
>    To opposition leaders the park with its Schinias
> Center was simply a
> sop to lower the political hurdles to construction
> in Schinias.
>    "When other national parks gets created, dozens
> of workers and
> bulldozers don't start driving through it, creating
> a massive sporting
> venue complete with restaurants, a gas station, and
> mass-transportation
> means in a forest," says Karavellas.
>    "That's not how protected areas are supposed to
> be treated. This
> decision sets a dangerous precedent for all Greece's
> other national parks."
>    In response to environmental concerns, the
> Olympics committee has
> introduced conservation measures. Fire-safety
> sprinklers now dot the Stone
> Pine forest. And all construction is outlawed,
> except for the Olympic
> venue.
>    "Honestly, look at some of the issues at hand,"
> says Kazantzopoulos.
> "If anything archaeological was found, experts were
> called in immediately
> to determine its importance."
>    Kazantzopoulos points out environmental
> benefits: replenished water for
> the pine forest, which farm use had increasingly
> been draining; more
> conservation for wildlife and plants; and better
> oversight of tourism.
>    "At the end of the Olympics, Schinias will be in
> better shape than when
> we first came," Kazantzopoulos says.
>    One more benefit of the duel over Schinias is
> that officials in
> Beijing, looking forward to the 2008 Games, have
> taken notice. China hopes
> to avoid pre-Games contention by choosing venues
> carefully.