"Greece's trouble started before those Olympic Games," said Robert Barney, founding director of the International Centre for Olympic Studies at the University of Western Ontario, "but nevertheless the spending on those games was a lot of frosting on a really big cake."
Athens won the right to host the Olympics in 1997 with an initial proposed budget of $1.6 billion; the Greek government spent many times that, though exactly how much has been a politically charged debate. Some of the massive overruns were unforeseeable, particularly $1.35 billion in increased security costs deemed necessary after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. But most experts attribute the runaway spending to chronic delays in breaking ground, which lead to a flurry of last-minute, high-cost outlays.
"I couldn't help but shake my head when they were doing it," said Olympic historian David Wallechinsky. "If they dealt with their national economy the same way, it's not surprising that there are problems."
The strikes and protests of recent months after the government pushed through an austerity budget have echoed the nail-biting months before the Olympics were due to open, when construction and hotel workers went on strike -- and police threatened to do so -- in order to secure more pay.
Soon after the 2000 Sydney Olympics, suggestions swirled in the international press that the Greeks would not be ready in time. Although the facilities were finished in time and the hosts put on a good show, the Athens Olympics could never shake the poor pre-publicity, Keith Duggan wrote this month in The Irish Times.
"Sandwiched between the Sydney Olympics, which came close to casual perfection, and the Beijing Games, which were relentlessly, frighteningly clockwork-perfect, the Athens Games were quickly forgotten about," Duggan wrote. "Perhaps that is why they have rarely been mentioned in the debates about Greece's ravaged state."
Although the European Union had set a deficit limit of 3 percent, Greece's financial problems became evident when its national debt jumped from 3.2 percent in 2003 to 5.3 percent after the Olympics. It was then that government officials admitted that the country had fudged its deficit figures in previous years to qualify for entry into the the euro currency zone in 2001. Despite the violations, the other euro-using states did not impose sanctions on Greece.
"Little did people realize that five or six years later, what was Greece's problem would be the world's problem," Wallechinsky said.
Last year, the Greek deficit fattened to 13.6 percent, prompting the $145 billion loan from the EU. By slashing spending and raising taxes, the government has planned to cut the debt to less than 3 percent by 2014. The news prompted rioting in the streets of Athens this month, as citizens protested the government's austerity plan.
Barney, who co-authored "Selling the Five Rings: The International Olympic Committee and the Rise of Olympic Commercialism," argued that when all public expenditures are factored in, no Olympic Games has ever made a profit. Montreal took 30 years to pay the $2.7 billion of debt it incurred after hosting the 1976 Summer Games.
"It just is not a money-making proposition," Barney said. "The revenues never measure up to the expense."
While the Greek public continues to pay to maintain the unused Olympic facilities, citizens have reaped the benefits of major infrastructural improvements like a new airport and metro system constructed for the Athens Games, said Spyros Economides, a professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
While government expenditures on the Athens Olympics alone were not a central catalyst for the current economic plight, Economides said, "I do think that they are symbolic of the accruing debt racked up."