On dominant places, ‘safe’ spaces and tourist micro-economies (or why it’s good to go off programme)


Ancient Olympia is a small town about a mile from the Olympic Academy. It is known for its archeological site of the ancient olympics from around 700BC – as well as some museums containing artifacts and statues found around the area. As it has close associations with the cultural/historical/spiritual identity of modern Greece – and the obvious connections with the Olympic Games (it is where they began to light the flame for the torch relay which began in 1936 – the year of the Berlin Games), Olympia is a bone fide tourist trap – popular to tour groups from cruise ships and those who are travelling around mainland Greece to see the sites of various digs.

During the preparations for the 2004 games in Athens, some investment was put into the town, which is about 4-5 hours away by car from the capital city, so that some events could be hosted in the original stadium. Therefore, Olympia is ‘clean’, but sterile compared to other towns near by, and is littered with gift shops, english-speaking bars and restaurants and friendly, enthusiastic shopkeepers. 

As I’ve been sick for the last few days (nasty spider bite, anti-biotics, rubbish in the heat) and not well enough to spend a day at the beach (it’s a great excuse really!) I’ve had taken the chance to visit the town today. I walked in early with the wife of the professor who arrived from the US last night to have a wander, see what I was missing and have a coffee together. 

For every shop that we stopped to browse, we were encountered by friendly owners who would use the identical format of “the price? I have a nice price for you. X EUR, for you? X-20% EUR.” There were often links to the Olympics “You from the academy?” [noticing my lanyard] “Come and see my signed book /postcard /photograph/torch from the moscow olympics” followed by pulling me into the shop to cover my arm in various jewellery. It was cute – and I did end up buying a silver owl charm for my necklace that I *hope* doesn’t turn green because I actually quite like it. 

We got chatting to some local vendors, one couple where one of them was originally from the states and had lived in Greece for 15 years and got onto the topic of tourists. I’m meta like that. She told us about the decline in footfall, despite the increase in traffic and visitors since the Athens Games. She said that it is getting so bad, that she can tell through how little she finds herself speaking in English – even when she was writing down some information of a local homemade cure for my spider-bite, she had forgotten how to write in english briefly. People were just not coming through the town.

What was happening was that instead of dropping off bus tour groups in a certain place and allowing them to wander around for several hours on their own, they were being driven to ‘safe spots’ – places where they were be herded around tourist area by a guide, shown group-endorsed restaurants and shops and moved from location to location with little time to explore places on their own. This happened to us on the first few days of travelling to Olympia, we were taken to specifically arrange restaurants (which had a set menu of MEAT and FRIES on both occasions) – obviously some of this is for ease and organisation – but there is also an element of micro-economy at play.

For each participant on the trip that eats at that restaurant, the tour organiser gets 5EUR. For every purchase in the endorsed shop, they get a cut between 10-20 percent – as well as an instant kickback of 30EUR per party. There are also techniques being used to prevent business going else where – tour guides getting a bung to say that there are only certain places that are worth purchasing from, that some goods are rubbish (tbf, it is hard to find a ‘tasteful’ greek souvenir that hasn’t been made in china) – and even the bus drivers are demanding payment for ‘extra’ services such as answering questions about services and the sites. All with the ignorant blessing of those who are visiting “authentic” Greece on holiday. 

I’m sure this has/is happening everywhere – and I hadn’t really thought about it before. I wouldn’t dare consider a holiday of that nature – it’s just not for me. It is restrictive in nature – and I ask too many questions in my head to settle on just *one* way of looking at the world. Plus I would probably go awol shortly after the first few nights.

When I got back from Olympia, I had lunch with the professor and some of the students who, like me, decided against the beach. One is from Guatemala – and is presenting on the steps that his country is taking to prepare for a bid for the Olympic Games. I quite cheekily said that they were be much better without the Games (read “Five Ring Circus” by Chris Shaw – on the NO Games movement in Vancouver)- and we a discussion about the IOC’s remit for giving the Games to ‘rich countries’ and that for a smaller south american country to get it would be seen as a big deal in terms of putting them on the world stage.

This is problematic for me – as the IOC are a non-democratic organisation that can enforce an enormous amount of pain on a country’s people directly and indirectly for at least 7 years – when budgets are redirected from public and social services such as health and education (witness what is happening the UK, the NHS is in grave danger of being privatised – and DON’T get me started on education) yet London 2012 is treated very much as a sacred cow, it does not even make sense if we are to believe and accept the austerity rhetoric being imposed by the government. What it does do, however, it creates – or in the case of London, reaffirms a well known “safe” spot for people to visit as part of an shared experience. In the same light why people visit Starbucks – or eat mcdonalds when they are abroad because they don’t want to ‘risk’ eating the local cusine, it is about having your expectations matched, no matter where you are – and staying within a accepted comfort zone.

The Olympics generate huge narratives about a country – attracting people to that country now that it has been considered a ‘safe’ space. For instance, being here – amongst 35 people from all round the world, it is strange to observe what transcends cultural boundaries – or more critical – what is the product of hyper-globalisation? I *could* hold a evening of cultural activities showcasing some of the more alternative aspects to the ‘UK culture’ (or even highlight different cities, different cultures, different musics, different foods, different accents – whatever, so much fascinates me) – but what people really want is something they know and understand within their own limitations and expectations – so it is much easier for me to step down the old braveheart route, bang on the proclaimers and cringe my way into oblivion. If I didn’t want to do that, I could draw on images of red buses, taxi cabs, the royal family – and all that awful shit that people want to see when they think of london. It is comfortable – it is concise – it helps ‘bond’ international relations – but it is a load of shite and I feel like a fraud when I even bring it up, like I’m abusing something to personally fit in for a night or so. 

So – when I think of Olympia and it’s tourist micro-economy – and I think of the people who are suffering from the cuts to their public services through enforced measures from the IMF and the Greek government. When I think about the ‘safe’ spaces and the ‘safe’ ideas of cultural identity – where it is considered appropriate (and entrepreneurial) to take a bus 400 metres rather than encourage people to make their own decisions about the (already sterilised) area, forcing the locals who (for whatever reason) want to opt out of the emerging system that appears to have grown as part of the legacy of the Athens Games, I can start to see the tangle of context that I need to articulate in my thesis when I am to speak about dominant narratives and dominant ideas of place. 

The International Olympic Academy, Y U NO DO IT RIGHT?