The More things change, the more they stay the same

Even in 1896, security was a big issue at Athens Olympics

ATHENS (AFP) – Just as security is a big issue at the 2004 Olympics, which open on Friday in Athens, it preoccupied officials in the Greek capital back in 1896, when the modern Games were revived.

The chief of Athens police at the time was so worried that the hordes of thieves who roamed the streets of the capital and kidnappers who operated around the country would disrupt the Games that he asked them to declare an Olympic truce, mirroring the temporary break in hostilities observed by warring tribes in ancient Greece during the Olympics.

At the start of 1896, the authorities in Athens learned from reliable sources that pickpockets from Istanbul, Cairo and Alexandria were preparing to invade the Greek capital to take advantage of ‘the good business opportunities’ which the Olympics would provide for their deft fingers.

But they weren’t the only source of worry for those in charge of security. Few in Greece had forgotten the so-called ‘Marathon murders’, in which, in 1870, three Britons were kidnapped and killed by Greek thieves.

Robbery and kidnapping had become so commonplace in Greece in the 1800s, and had so severely tarnished the country’s image, that the government was forced to take tough measures against the thieves and hostage-takers.

For the 1896 Games, an entire regiment of traditional Greek royal guards, Evzones, and two cavalry units were mobilised to provide security cover.

The special security force numbered 400 men — a “far cry from the 70,000 who will be on duty for the 2004 Games, but a considerable force for the time.

Athens’ police force was granted a special allowance of 30,000 drachmas to allow it to beef itself up, Estia newspaper reported at the time. In comparison, an average ticket to the Olympics cost 1.3 drachmas.

Police were sent from the provinces to the capital and were given special training in “how to behave with foreigners,” the paper wrote.

But despite the best efforts of the organisers and the government, Athenian newspaper Asty said a few weeks before the 1896 Games opened in March that “the lives of visitors and their property are in danger in the streets of the capital.”

Athens police chief at the time, Dimitrios Bairaktaris, warned in an interview with Estia in February 1896 that “the flow of foreigners (into Athens) to celebrate the Games will doubtless bring with it numerous thieves and society dropouts, and only a good and severe police organisation can result in a situation without danger.”

To achieve that end, Bairaktaris released Greek thieves from prison and held a mass meeting with them on the Pnyx, the hill that overlooks the Acropolis.

There, he asked them, in the name of Greece’s legendary hospitality and honour, to monitor the activities of their “colleagues” and to ensure the safety of foreign visitors.

And if they refused, seeking instead to join their “colleagues” in a bit of light-fingered crime?

“Those who do not respect this decision will be beaten,” warned the Police Review of the time.

The threat of lashings and the honour of Greece were enough for the local thieves. They vowed on the Pnyx to do Bairaktaris’ bidding, and the Games went off with neither attacks nor robberies.

So proud was King George of the Greek’s behaviour during the Olympics that he said in an interview with French newspaper Le Figaro: “Not one robbery was committed, not one pickpocket slipped into the crowd. Athens was protected by the probity of her people.”

But after the foreign visitors had left the capital, the lingering thieves and dropouts made up for lost time by preying on provincial Greeks who had decided to prolong their stay in Athens after the games.

“After an entire week of exceptional security, they were like lambs to the slaughter at the hands of the thieves,” the Police Review noted.

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