I had always wanted to go to the Olympic Games, so when my wife’s home city was awarded the 2004 Games, plans were hatched.
Athens went into a building frenzy to ensure that they put on a great show. After all they were the inventors of the Olympics and the original hosts of the ‘Modern’ Games in 1896.
Nearly all events in those inaugural Games were held at the Marble Stadium in the Athens centre. The magnificent stadium still stands proudly today and was to be the venue for the archery in 2004 as well as the end point for the Men’s and Women’s marathons for both the able bodied competition and the Paralympics.
A new airport, metro system, tram route and roads were all constructed (the majority of contracts went to German companies – that’s another story) in addition to a splendid new main stadium, aquatics centre, media centre and several peripheral venues for sports such as baseball, hockey and cycling.
Furthermore the Games were the first to be held post 9/11 leading to a trebling of security costs to well over €1 billion. All in all, putting on the greatest show on earth was to prove a financial disaster for Greece, but boy did they put on an impressive event.
As this was to be my first and possibly only Olympics, I went to town on the ticket front and applied for about £2,000 worth in the ballot, never expecting to get anywhere near as many.
In the event I got all but the swimming tickets that I had applied for. £1,500 was swiftly debited from my credit card unbeknown to Mrs Wilbur!
The Games were held mid August, just about the hottest time of year in Athens (ask Paula Radcliffe) – not as daft as you may think as this is the traditional time for Athenians and all their cars to desert the capital and head for their village and coastal parental/holiday homes.
The city was truly for tourists and Games goers like me. We arrived a few days before the opening ceremony (best remembered for Bjork’s absolutely bonkers performance), just in time for a huge scandal to break.
Greece’s two best known athletes, 2000 Men’s 100m Gold Medalist Konstantinos Kenteris and Women’s 100m Silver Medalist Katerina Thanou were suspended from their home Games for allegedly avoiding drugs tests. They even faked a motorcycle crash to try and avoid detection.
They were both tipped for Gold, so the scandal put a big dent in the pride of the home nation, still cockerhoop from unexpectedly winning that year’s European Football Championships in Portugal.
My first sport was table tennis. I had never seen the sport live but as it was due on the Friday morning before the Games were officially open, I wanted to be one of the chosen early birds. All ticket holders received free transport on the date of their ticket, so I was to have a bus to myself for the journey.
At the venue I had my choice of security personnel to be frisked by and I could pretty much sit anywhere I wanted. The ping pong was fun to watch, especially any game featuring an Oriental man or woman who seemed to have wholly different and infinitely more spectacular tactics to everybody else.
The other thing of note was that refreshments cost the same as would be charged in any Athens periptero (kiosk) or burger joint. No profiteering there then, true to the spirit of friendship, but not great for profits (or reduced losses more like)!
We were due to watch the opening ceremony on a huge screen in Zappeion Square, but this was cancelled at the last minute for security reasons!? We just made it back to Mrs Wilbur’s flat in time to see the Icelandic Ice Maiden shrieking and turning her dress into a huge veil that enveloped the whole stadium. I didn’t get it either!
Next up for me was a Men’s hockey double header, with the first game between Australia and Argentina starting at eight in the morning. The early start did not stop the Aussies from imbibing on amber nectar by the bucketful and they were raucous throughout. Argentina had a player sent off for fighting, but the ten men thoroughly deserved their point in an exciting and tempestuous 2-2 draw.
The second game was Team GB v South Korea. Good hearted banter had been brewing between the Brits and the Aussies, but this was to develop into bitter jibes as The Koreans ran out 3-2 winners.
Don’t you just love a brazen, drunken Aussie!
Next up came a remarkable football match played at the brand new home of Olympiakos near Piraeus.
It was played between Iraq and Costa Rica. Iraq had of course seen the overthrow of the Saddam regime the previous year and the football team took on the role of symbolising hope for the new Iraq.
There were over 5,000 Iraqis in the crowd, many of whom lived in Greece & Turkey.
The atmosphere was wild with the Iraqis chanting non-stop. They were rewarded with a two-nil victory and after each goal it seemed the majority of their fans entered the playing surface.
It took a good ten minutes to restore order after the first invasion, including time to clear up an inordinate amount of litter that they left behind.
The whole world got behind the Iraq football team after that, but disappointingly they were to finish fourth and without a medal.
After that I took in four volleyball matches, archery at the Marble Stadium & road cycling.
Then came for five events that had cost the vast majority of all that plastic money.
The rowing was held well outside Athens in a venue called Schineas. Again the start was at eight, so I left the flat at six to get there in time.
On arrival the Brits were doing what the Aussies had done at the hockey. It was already nearly 30 degrees and I easily broke my water consumption record that morning!
I took my place on the finish line with the Union Jack draped Brits and we watched several medals awarded as we awaited the big one – the Men’s Coxless Fours in which the Team GB quartet of Matthew Pinsent, James Cracknell, Ed Coode and Steve Williams were hotly tipped for Gold.
In the event we roared and roared as they battled it out with the Canadians, coming from behind to snatch a photo finish on the final stroke.
My amateur eye looking right across the line had them down as winners and indeed I was correct. The largely British crowd cheered wildly and many of us shed a tear a few minutes later as the British National Anthem rang out. Wonderful stuff.
We had tickets for both the Men’s and Women’s 100m finals run on consecutive evenings in the main Olympic Stadium. There was a carnival atmosphere as we took our seats.
There were many other track & field events going on as well. We saw the new Greek athletic heroine Fani Halkia break the Olympic record in winning her 400m hurdles semi-final (she went on to win Gold on another day), Kelly Sotherton win Bronze for Team GB in the Women’s Heptathlon (we also saw 2000 Gold Medallist Denise Lewis limp out of the same event and were to also see her in a cosmetics shop the next day), Kelly Holmes win her 800m semi-final and Philips Odowu getting eliminated from the triple jump for three no-jumps right in front of us.
The main events were a bit of a let down if I am honest. The 100m straight was on the opposite side of the track from us and we ended up watching the 10 second races on the big screen.
The atmosphere however made up for it. We were ‘treated’ to a rendition of Zorba the Greek before the races, which really got the crowd going in case they needed extra incentive.
The Men’s race was won by (previously and subsequently banned drug cheat) Justin Gatlin of the USA, whilst Yuliya Nesterenko of Belarus won the Women’s version.
That left gymnastics over two nights. Like all the other sports bar the football, this was to be my live spectating debut. I wasn’t exactly a gymnastics fan and could only name three from any era (Olga Korbut, Nadia Comaneci and Nellie Kim (who was a judge at these Games)).
We were really treated to some fantastic sport. I especially remember the Women’s team event, which was won emphatically by Romania. They had an absolute star in 17 year-old Cătălina Ponor. She also won two individual Golds in Beam & Floor, which we also saw.
The other really memorable moment concerned Russian male gymnast Alexei Nemov, who gave a stunningly spectacular performance in the High Bars final to bring the house down.
When the judges gave him a relatively low mark, the finals were held up for twenty minutes due to the chorus of boos and jeers from the crowd. The judges eventually upped the marks slightly to silence the spectators, but not enough to put him in with a medal chance.
I flew home on the final Saturday, just in time to see (now Dame) Kelly Holmes win the 1,500m Gold to go with the 800m she had already won, the colour of medal also win by the Men’s 4x100m relay team of Brits Jason Gardener, Darren Campbell, Marlon Devonish & Mark Lewis-Francis.
All in all it had been an absolutely fantastic fortnight of competition, but had also been memorable for the party atmosphere in the whole city. A colourful mix of nationalities frequented all of the touristic venues in Athens, with many playing music, dancing and just generally having a good time.
I was also lucky enough to attend a number of events before and during London 2012. That will be for another day……