The Olympic Venues Of Athens: A History of Refuge and Decay

Photos/Text: Anna Pantelia

Published in Newsweek on 8th of Nov 2016


It was 12 years ago when Greece was celebrating the return of the Olympic Games to the city where they began, when the once-gleaming Olympic venues were hosting millions of spectators, and athletes from all around the world, when Greek economy seemed to reach its pick before the free fall that followed. Olympics’ spiritual home of Athens lie empty, completely unused and rotting. For Greeks like myself, it’s only the bitter taste of disappointment left to remind us those days, along with the eight years of cruel economic depression and an ongoing refugee crisis.


When the Olympic torch went out, it took away all the glory and the pride of these times. Some of multi-billion constructions were used as concert halls, conference and exhibition facilities but the majority of them left unused. The pools have dried up and the running tracks have mossed as the already weak Greek economy cannot afford maintaining them.


Twelve years later some of these facilities became again the centre of attention, but this time there are no spotlights, no laurel wreaths and no winners, just misery and despair. These remains of Greece’s golden age are today haunting the dreams of thousands of people who are in search of the European dream. More than 10.000 immigrants and refugees are dispersed in the Greek capital. The recent borders closure left thousands of immigrants and refugees stuck in limbo.


Around 2.000 – 3.000 of them are stranded in Hellenikon Olympic Complex. Helleniko is the reflection of the ongoing financial and refugee crisis that Greece is simultaneously facing. Its entrance portend the inhuman conditions under which thousands of people staying for weeks. I first saw the former airport of Athens which is situated right next to the sports complex. It was March 28, 2001 when the last flight took off from the Athens airport in Hellinikon. Since then the runway lights went out forever, and the once bustling airport is surrendered to the ravages of time. Today, fifteen years later, I can only see laundry hanging from the metal fencing, makeshift slums and people walking aimlessly around. Immigrants and refugees awaiting weeks for the permission to cross the borders yet after the latest EU summit meeting in which European leaders and Turkey were considering not only closing the borders but also returning refugees and immigrants back to Turkey, little hope has left. Some of them have already give up.


“I am two months in Greece, I have ran out money and patience”, Zahir tells me in perfect English. “I am a 21-year old man, I can survive with little food but there are so many children who haven’t enough food and are getting sick” he continues. Zahir is a university student from Pakistan who decided to come to Europe in order to find a job and help his 3 younger brothers to go to the university. “In Pakistan you have to pay for your education; we are 4 children in the family and my father is a farmer, he can not afford sending us to the university. In Pakistan everyone values you depending on the car or the house you have, not your personality and I don’t like this mentality. That’s why I want my brothers to be educated” he says and huffs disappointedly. “ Education is very important for someones personality and I want my brothers to have good personality”. As he recounts of his dangerous trip to Europe I see some hope in his eyes. He paid 4000 USD, walked 18 hours, stacked in a car with 16 other people, got into a plastic dinghy just to realise that there is no future for him in Europe. “ I want to go back to Pakistan. At least there I will finish my studies and I will try to find a job, I can’t stay here doing nothing for months or even years” he tells me adding that he has already applied for the voluntary deportation scheme in Greece. He seems determined but Greek and Pakistani authorities don’t seem to take any action.


Meanwhile the situation in Athens seems to get worse. The numbers of those stuck in Athens have skyrocketed as the borders remain shut. Often, basic needs are not covered, especially for single men as the priority is given to women and children. “Yesterday night there was no food left for us but we can survive” he says and smiles uncomfortably. Smugglers are approaching him very often but he can’t afford to pay 1500 euros, the amount asked to cross the FYRO Macedonian borders.


Financial and sexual exploitation against immigrants and refugees have become a usual phenomenon in the Athenians neighbourhoods. Zahid, as well as others, is approached by men looking for paid sex; they have offered him 20-150 euros to sleep with them. “I can now understand what someone wants from me, I can tell from the way they approach me; they usually sit next to me for chit chat and then they open their wallets because they know we are in need. They even touch me inappropriately without my consent.” he confesses.

More than 3 hours have passed since we start talking with Zahid. “It’s late, I should go home” I tell him ; “You have a home…” he responded.