The Colossus of Maroussi

Iain Sinclair visits Athens

They hunted dogs with guns, the Berliner said, to clear the streets for the Olympics. He was in Hackney now, an architect, but he had been in Athens in 2002, when the deals were going down and the grand project was underway. I sat in an afternoon pub, beside a street market that seemed to have migrated across town from Notting Hill, close to a stretch of the Regent’s Canal that had been peremptorily closed, fenced, drained. Instead of dogs, perhaps they were going to kill unsightly eels and fish, or the birds that feed on them. No work was in progress, but the exclusion zone had been briskly set up and was policed by the usual yellow tabards. The challenge, of attempting to discommode stubborn pedestrians, always comes from the wrong direction: ‘What are you doing on the towpath?’ Good question. I’ve been trying to find an answer for years. But it is where I am, where I like to be, every morning. The invaders assume absolute authority, without explanation or apology. What are you doing here? The double-banked lines of narrowboats, council tax dodgers, have been dispersed. Cyclists are thrown into the murderous stream of Mare Street. A procession of women, all ages, being taught how to swing their arms while marching (and talking), runs slap against the plywood barrier. As a precaution, the authorities have painted a white line around the former boating lake in Victoria Park, along with a helpful notice: CAUTION WATER. You can’t be too careful of this stuff, this alien medium. Comb off the algae carpet, the scum, and prepare to airlift in a dune or two, with deckchairs and parasols, for an urban beach. A rising hysteria grips the fortunate Olympic boroughs; funny money is available, in serious quantities, for those who can come up with the right kind of fun. If you were going to hunt dogs, Victoria Park wouldn’t be a bad place to start.

Those dogs stayed with me when I left for Athens. I had seen film footage shot two years after the 2004 Games, of loping beasts, freelance canine caretakers patrolling the overgrown wilderness of the futurist sculpture park that once surrounded the Olympic complex out at Maroussi. Furtive ghosts in shaggy coats demonstrating a classical trajectory of fate: those who are condemned without justification become the sole occupiers of the deserted palace for which they were the intended sacrifice. Now, starting early, to get to the New Acropolis Museum before the promised crowds, I noticed cats scavenging from the lip of a brightly polished litter bin; sleek, piebald creatures, leaning back, using fat tails for balance, as they sniffed the refuse. The pavements were rain-washed and scrupulously clean. The graffiti, in this high-visibility zone, was in Arabic, framed in cracked marble panels at the base of the steps like calligraphy by Cy Twombly.

Rumen Kocev, ‘The Olympic Stadium, Athens’
Rumen Kocev, ‘The Olympic Stadium, Athens’

The tribal dogs, wolfish spirits of place, skulking guardians of something that has been lost, circumnavigate the major tourist attractions without feeling any obligation to beg or charm. They are the unculled, collateral victims of the Olympic gaze: heavy-pelted German Shepherds, down on their luck, war veterans with a folk memory of clover-munching sheep; fluffed-out, pinkish creatures on very thin legs, like wealthy matrons from the Kolonaki district caught in the rain without their dark glasses. Feral packs once roamed the city, it’s what dogs do: testing out architecture designed to be abandoned, and recalling the years before they were enslaved as household pets. They scrounged at restaurants and tavernas with Balkan insouciance. While unaffiliated cats, halfway to heaven, blanketed roofs like gently stirring underlay; they stretched, arched, settled and resettled the corrugated iron of Monastiraki Station, or the skeleton of a wrecked café on the limestone plug of Lycabettus Hill.

At the dawn of a new golden age for Greece, with the football team grinding out a victory over Portugal, 1-0, in the final of Euro 2004, and Elena Paparizou about to carry off the Eurovision Song Contest in 2005, rough-trade canines were seen by outsiders as a cosmetic issue. You couldn’t blow billions of euros on Olympic complexes, a Metro system, Baghdads of synchronised fireworks, and have TV coverage fouled up with drooling, belly-on-the-floor bandits, begging for leftovers and shitting on your shoes. There was talk – the Berliner was right about that – of taking them out, but not with guns, rather by the traditional Socratic solution, poison. But the dogs were family, and were treated as such: cleaned up, neutered, turned loose.

The €9 billion spent on the Olympic party was equivalent to the amount financial experts reckoned investors were syphoning out of Greek banks to bury in Cyprus or Switzerland when the collapse finally came, just as I visited Athens early in 2010. The people I talked to, students, academics, film-makers, all agreed: it had been a monumental, epoch-defining opening ceremony. The children of the middle-class suburbs, out by the mountains, down on the coast, queued up to volunteer, to play their part as marshals or programme sellers. Everybody had the DVD of the firework night, it was still selling. Nobody remembered what happened after that. One young woman, a highly qualified lawyer, now working off-the-book for around €400 a month, recalled the only Olympic event she’d actually witnessed. ‘There were horses dancing. Very pretty.’ The story of the drug-cheat sprinters and their staged motorcycle accident, on the eve of an appointment with the testers, has been quietly forgotten. There are different takes on this kind of behaviour. ‘Better a thief than a fool.’ Students help each other in exams, everybody gets the same grade. The honour of the group is salvaged. They told me that they demonstrated most afternoons, as a kind of ritual, stoning the Hilton Hotel, or marching to the American embassy: their only form of exercise. Once established as a student, the hard part has been done: you can maintain that status, failing or avoiding exams, for years – it’s an alternative career.

The dogs I had to step over to go down the ramp to Bernard Tschumi’s statement glass and concrete box, the New Acropolis Museum, were crushed and posthumous, unwilling to lift their heads from the slick floor with its spindly reflections of cypress trees. They wore blue collars, they were tagged collaborators whose native territory had been captured. They moved, like tourists with one of those tickets granting access to a number of ancient sites, between quotation ruins, refusing to trade dignity for a pat on the back. Inside the museum, rack-ribbed and stalking, was the thing they had once been: a savage marble hound, from 520 BC, ‘associated with the Sanctuary of Artemis Brauronia on the Acropolis’.

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