WASHINGTON, Aug. 30 (UPI) -- Greece and the world were big winners from the surprise success of the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. But the biggest winner of all was most likely the European Union.
A spokesman for EU Commission President Romano Prodi said Monday that the EU had "swept the floor" in the Athens Games. EU officials calculated that their 25 member states won a massive total of 286 medals including 82 gold.
The EU is the gentle giant on the world scene that never gets any respect. It is the Rodney Dangerfield of global superpowers. American neo-conservative pundits have long been fond of painting the 25-nation EU with its 425 million population as a gigantic wimp. Americans are from Mars, Europeans are merely from Venus, they have repeatedly opined.
Curiously, however, those wimp Europeans emerged as the world's greatest sporting colossus on the stage at Athens. Their combined medals tally dwarfed the United States who won 103 total and 35 gold, Russia with 92 total and 27 gold and China with 63 total and 32 gold. The four leading EU medal-winning nations alone, Germany, France, Italy and the United Kingdom together netted 143 medals, including 44 gold.
Prodi also suggested that in future Olympics, European athletes compete under the blue EU flag with its circle of yellow stars as well as their own national emblems. "In 2008 I hope to see the EU member state teams in Beijing carry the flag of the European Union alongside their own national flag as a symbol of our unity," he said.
But the EU's biggest victories in Athens went far beyond the simple medal count.
First, the success of the Athens Olympics was a triumph for European civilization and history. The Olympics went back to their ancient and modern home. The first modern Olympic Games were held in Greece in 1896, none had been held there since. They revived the ancient games of the Hellenic world that began in 776 BC and endured more than 1,100 years until they were banned near the end of the 4th century AD.
Over the past two weeks well over a billion people on every continent of the 21st century earth saw the Olympics showcased amid the breathtaking landscapes and immortal architecture that originally inspired them nearly 2,800 years ago. The Olympics were born and flourished for more than a millennium, then rose again more than 1,400 years later in the land that was the cradle of European civilization and culture. And this was the lesson beamed to every corner of the earth: European civilization is alive and well, vibrant and dynamic. The EU, which united the nations of Europe as nothing since the Roman Empire ever has is also the beneficiary of that impact.
Even on a practical level, the success of the Athens Olympics was a triumph for Europe, and offered especially hope for its smaller members. Greece has a population of only 11 million people. It is not, contrary to the inaccurate hyperbole of accounts that have appeared in the American media, the smallest nation in the EU by far. Ireland, Slovenia, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, to name but five have far smaller populations. But it is certainly the smallest nation in both territory and population to host the Summer Games since Finland in 1952. And yet it pulled off that responsibility with immense success.
A major reason it did so is the enormous boost of EU financial support. The EU taxpayers shelled out around $3 billion for the infrastructure costs of new roads and massive new programs like the new Athens mass transit subway system. This was certainly not free market economics even if it was a shrewd deal for the citizens of Greece. Athens gained a brilliant new state-of--the-art public infrastructure on the cheap.
But this dark cloud has a silver lining likely to far outweigh the disappointing tourist harvest that Greece netted for the Games. It contradicted a Conventional Wisdom that now goes back almost three decades to the financial disaster that was the Montreal Games of 1976. Ever since then, the CW has taught that only huge nation can aspire to host the Summer Games, small countries and even worse relatively small cities need not bother to apply. The Summer Games have become so enormous and the vast burdens of infrastructure development and now even security costs imposed by their gargantuan popularity and size means that they can only be held in big, prosperous nations, so the CW goes.
The success of the Athens Games, thanks to their EU subsidies, however, has transformed the economic and organizational dynamic of the Games as nothing has since they started to go "mega" in Rome in 1960. Greece and the EU between them have now produced a successful new template for hosting the Olympics. Smaller nations in Europe like The Netherlands and Norway or even, for that matter, Ireland, Denmark or Austria can now present themselves as potential viable hosts for the Games in ways that they could never have conceived of before these splendid 17 Days in Athens.
The Athens Games established the precedent that the EU could and did provide massive financial and organizational support for one of its smaller nation states that almost certainly would have lacked the resources to organize and host the Summer Games all on its own.
Indeed, the success of the Athens Olympics offers a possible solution for the out-of-control gigantism and even commercialism that has infected the Summer Games for more than 40 years, and the corrective it suggests is an obvious one to the problems that have proliferated. What could be a more logical solution to the problems of out of control internationalism and globalization than more international organization and cooperation that rises to the challenge and tames it?
The EU's success in helping Greece out with these unexpectedly successful Summer Games looks like coming in handy again within the next decade. The four cities that are now the favorites to hold the 2012 Games -- a decision due to be taken next year -- are New York, London, Paris and Madrid. Apart from the Big Apple, every on of those cities is the capital of a major EU nation. The increased terror threat in the United States, tensions between the United States and major Muslim nation and the simple fact that U.S. cities have already hosted the Summer Games twice in the past two decades suggest that they will likely go to one of the European venues instead. London has not hosted the Summer Olympics since 1948, Paris since 1924 and Madrid has never hosted them at all (although Barcelona did with great success in 1992).
These 2004 Games made Greece glow before the whole world, but some of the reflected radiance and credit belongs to the EU as well.