In six months the Summer Olympics will return to Athens, Greece, the birthplace of the ancient games on Mount Olympus and home to the first modern games in 1896. The Olympics have changed dramatically since the last time they were in that city. They have become a big business, attracting sponsorship from major multinational corporations, and their extensive financial investment is always contingent upon the Olympics being a grand, lavish spectacle that will attract television viewers around the world. Local and national authorities in Greece have rushed to clear and prepare land for Olympic events and housing, under pressure from the International Olympic Committee, which has said that Athens organizers are not making sufficient progress. In the process, local authorities have targeted housing complexes occupied by the Roma minority in and around Athens. Just as preparations for previous Olympics have affected indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities in other countries, including the Aborigines in Australia during the Sydney games, the Athens games have become a pretext for persecution of the Roma.
The allegations of systematic persecution of the Roma first emerged in the summer of 2001. In the Athens suburb of Aspropyrgos, the town mayor, backed by local police and a bulldozer, ordered that a cluster of Roma huts be cleared and the occupants relocated so that the land could be used to build Olympic housing facilities. The Greek government subsequently sought to move 200 Roma families to land in Aspropyrgos and Ano Liosia, but both municipalities argued against the measure, stating that they still needed land for Olympic venues and housing. While their status was being determined, the Roma families in question were forced to live in unsanitary conditions around a garbage dump outside of Athens. With municipalities throughout Greece seeking to host events and house athletes and spectators in order to gain prestige and revenue, the Roma often have nowhere to turn for adequate housing. But it is clear in many of these cases that the Olympics is not the cities’ only motivation. Indeed, an underlying current of anti-Roma sentiment and racial stereotyping is often present in the actions of the local Greek authorities, raising the possibility that the “cleaning operations” are simply a way to rid communities of Roma populations. One recent case that illustrates this point occurred far from Athens and the center of the 2004 Olympics, in the town of Nea Alikarnassos on the island of Crete. Local authorities had promised to help construct a settlement for the Roma in the community, but quickly reneged on the agreement, claiming that the land was needed for a basketball court and adjoining parking lot—both to be built with Olympics funds in the hopes that a competing team would use the facilities as their practice base prior to the tournament. The Roma and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) challenged this decision on the basis that these were not sufficient reasons to deny the Roma housing opportunities. In an attempt to discredit the Roma’s claims, the mayor of Nea Alikarnassos responded that the Roma had connections to drug dealing and other illegal activities. The mayor’s use of a common cultural stereotype against the Roma indicated that possible Olympic revenue may not have been the only reason for his actions, and possibly not even the primary motivation. Furthermore, the cases in Aspropyrgos and Nea Alikarnassos are indicative of a long history of discrimination against the Roma in a housing sector that is supported by Greek housing laws.
In 1983, the Greek government passed a health ordinance regarding the “organized settlement of itinerant nomads,” referring specifically to the Athingani, a Greek term for the Roma population. This law states that these organized settlements “must be outside the inhabited areas and in good distance from the approved urban plan or the last consecutive house. Settlement is not permitted near archaeological sites, beaches, places of natural beauty, points visible from main roads, or in areas where they might affect public health (sources of drinking water, etc.).” This ordinance is still in effect in Greece, and although the Greek government has tried to distance itself from it, the attitude toward the Roma clearly remains the same, particularly at the local level. In 2001, Josephine Verspaget, chair of the Specialist Group on Roma/Gypsies of the Council of Europe, visited several Roma encampments in Greece, including sites in Aspropyrgos and Marousi near the Olympic Stadium. Verspaget strongly condemned Greek national and local authorities in a June 2001 Greek Helsinki Monitor press release for forcing the Roma to live in conditions that she described as “institutionalized apartheid.” In one case, several Roma families in Spata were forced to move onto land that had once served as a North Atlantic Treaty Organization waste dump. The Greek government, under pressure from international monitors such as the Council of Europe and NGOs like the Greek Helsinki Monitor, blamed local authorities for the error—raising the question of who can exert control and influence over local Greek authorities if the national government cannot.
Given the ingrained animosity against the Roma in places like Aspropyrgos and Nea Alikarnassos, combined with both the pressure to complete preparations for the Olympics and the potentially lucrative benefits of hosting Olympic events, fans, and tourists, there is a substantial risk of further discrimination against the Roma in the housing sector in the next six months. Thus far, the strategy of the International Olympic Committee, the Greek Helsinki Monitor, the United Nations, the Council of Europe, and other monitoring organizations has been to pressure the Greek government. But the effectiveness of this strategy is questionable if the Greek government continues to place blame on local authorities for the problems. The Greek government’s action (or inaction) may stem from lingering prejudice against the Roma at the national level, or possibly from a serious lack of national control over local action. In either case, international NGOs and intergovernmental organizations will need to increase pressure on the Greek government to create any changes at the local level. The recent American criticism of Greece’s human rights record, specifically of the country’s inability to combat human trafficking, may serve to increase the pressure. For the 2004 Olympics, the International Olympic Committee cannot continue to press for rapid improvements in the preparations and simultaneously criticize the Greek authorities for their treatment of the Roma. Although the Greek national and local authorities certainly must be held accountable for using the Games as an excuse, it is imprudent to provide a ready-made explanation for what is frequently tantamount to blatant racial profiling and discrimination. With the 2008 Olympics scheduled to be held in Beijing, the International Olympic Committee must now make a firm commitment to decry any human rights abuses committed under the guise of progress toward the Olympics.
While it is also imperative that the United States, as well as Greece’s fellow European Union members, criticize Greek human rights violations and the segregation and mistreatment of the Roma, there ultimately must be greater accountability at the national and local levels. Greek society can only actively confront the ingrained prejudice and discrimination against the Roma if authorities at all levels, in politics, housing, and law enforcement, refrain from passing the buck on these potentially controversial issues. With the global spotlight on Greece in the summer of 2004, bringing these problems to the attention of a wide public audience, Greek authorities may have no other alternative.
Dan Brame received a bachelor’s degree in international relations and religion from Syracuse University and is now pursuing a master's degree in international development at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. In spring 2004 he will continue his research on the Roma population of eastern Europe with fieldwork in Skopje, Macedonia.