By Brian Cazeneuve
May 09, 2013
Angelopoulos led the Athens Olympic bid and Organizing Committee, and is now a convening sponsor with the Clinton Global Initiative.
Mark Dadswell/Getty Images

The woman with the determined tongue and piercing eyes talks with conviction, as if someone's life -- or at least their livelihood -- depended on her words. If you're listening to her, that someone may be you. "Never believe anything is impossible," says Gianna Angelopoulos. "If you think a problem does not have a solution, then you're not looking hard enough." These are words of wisdom and of battle. Angelopoulos knows both. As the first woman to head an Olympic bid committee and organizing committee, the soul behind the Athens Olympics can offer strong thoughts, hopes and admonitions for anyone looking to host an Olympic Games. "Be bold. Do not think you can't be practical and bold at the same time," she says. And she has the results to back her up. She served in Parliament, even though when she was born on the island of Crete, women were still two years away from having the right to vote.

Now a youngish 57, Angelopoulos has written a book about her experience. My Greek Drama details her life as a girl in a Greek society that did not have, let alone nurture, women leaders. It depicts a headstrong young woman full of curiosity and ambition. She was not a good student, because, after all, she never did anything by the book. When she was running for office early in her life, she wanted to mail plants to each of her constituents. Impractical, yes, but there must be a symbolic way to beautify the city, show off the Greek culture in a modern and environmentally friendly way. So, she mailed basil seeds to thousands of Greeks to get her message across. Her unorthodox style won her a municipal post in Athens, but it also won her as many new enemies as it did friends.

Her great fortune came from misfortune. In 1989, Athens was considered the obvious choice to win the rights to stage the centennial Olympic Games in 1996. This was, after all, the birthplace of the Games. But the bid group made several mistakes, essentially shaping its campaign around the ideas that these Olympics were a Greek birthright, that the city was owed the Games. Instead, they went to Atlanta. If Athens were to bid again, it would take a more creative approach to win over the IOC members. Angelopoulos was brought in to be bid chairman.

"We wanted to win it on merit," she says. "Maybe the IOC members take other factors, like Greece's history with the Games, into consideration, but you cannot count on this. You have to make sure your bid is the best bid for the Games, because some of the other things you cannot control."

Not everyone appreciated her direct and forward management style. Eight of 12 members of the bid committee quit, but she insisted on positioning the bid her way, and in 1997, Athens won the right to host the Olympics in 2004. That was the easy part.

Angelopoulos was not involved with the actual organizing committee at the beginning of the city's seven-year run-up. Halfway through the process, Athens was behind schedule. Not only was the city on the hook to host the Games, but it was committed to a massive infrastructure overhaul, including new roads, buildings, hotels and a modern airport. Yet despite public support for the Olympics, various government agencies bickered over who would direct certain projects and who would pay for them. Sponsors stayed away. Projects were deferred. Athens was the student who just couldn't start studying until the night before the test.

By the time Angelopoulos was asked to head the organizing committee, she had just three years left. It was barely enough time. "When I arrived," she recalled, "I knew I was not just checking the pulse, I was making an autopsy." At a sponsor meeting in New York soon after her appointment, Dick Pound, then an IOC vice president, was rolling his eyes when asked about Greece's progress. "Well," he said, "Mrs. A has only been on the job a week, but she's back. Thank God."

Angelopoulos was struck by the impression of a so-called Greek Paradox: "That so many Greek thinkers influence the world and yet the country has trouble running itself. Away from home, we fly with open wings, but at home, something holds us back." But she would not be held back. She tangled with reluctant agencies and government branches that wanted Olympic involvement on their terms. Her favorite books are The Art of War by Sun Tzu and the ThePrince by Machiavelli.

Her successful approach for building a constituency for Greece's Olympics helps her inspire other prospective bidders and organizers with some key advice and tips for handling something as memorable and important as the Olympics.

"No other event can lift a city more than an Olympic Games . . . You have to be willing to go door to door. You are asking people to reorganize their lives and not just for two weeks. Look, 95 percent of the people wanted us to bid, wanted us to stage the Olympic Games for Greece. Our people felt the Games. They were personal to the Greek people. Your city is your community, your town. For it to be successful, it has to feel personal, because everyone remembers an Olympics and you want them to remember them for good reasons.

"Greece had no tradition of volunteering. We needed 45,000 for the Olympics and 15,000 for the Paralympics. Can we get these people? We didn't know? We had 165,000 applications. If you are volunteering your time for a cause or an event, then it is personal to you. The connection with the volunteers cannot be overstated."

Some of her other leadership wisdom:

- "Listen when you are in a room with someone. Never be caught scanning the room for others."

- "Bring politicians together with working-class people. Do not always trust the politicians to get things done. Sometimes it is not good politics to take action and you are in the business of always taking action, so you cannot rely on the politicians."

- "Human capital is more important than actual capital."

"Be a workhorse and not a show horse. I become tougher when you tell me I can't do it. Build a can-do attitude. When you hear we cannot do that, remember it has to be done. It will be done."

-"A leader has to speak the truth."

-"A leader has to be able to translate a task into pleasure. Inspire people to work because they care about their work and have a passion for it, nit just because there is an obligation."

-"Keep people invested. It is their Games, their work."

- "Be ready to sacrifice. If you ask others to sacrifice and you are not doing the same, you will have problems."

In particular for prospective U.S. bid cities, Angelopoulos cautions bid leaders not to ignore hints and warnings from the 100 or so members who will vote on their futures and to make sure there are no exterior controversies that could derail a bid. New York and Chicago lost out on attempts to land the Games, in part because the IOC insisted on re-working terms of its television revenue sharing agreement with the U.S.O.C., something the U.S.O.C. was reluctant to do. Plant the seeds first before you expect plants.

The Olympics left Athens with a new airport, a new railway system linking the airport to the city, a new tram, but also new headaches in trying to maintain all of these additions. Though plans were in place for post-Olympic use with many facilities, the growing financial crisis in Europe that has hit Greece especially hard has left many of the facilities in limbo. Some have been taken over by professional clubs. The Athens Games officially ran at a profit, though with so many Olympic-related projects involving construction, modernization, security and beautification, profit numbers these days for all Olympic Games are largely functions of which figures are counted against Olympic budgets and which ones are funneled into the budgets of other government branches and agencies.

"A measure of the Games is the legacy after the Games," Angelopoulos says. "There must be a blueprint for after the Games, facilities, the environment, the effect after. Some of the lessons of 2004 have been forgotten." But how much of that rests with an organizing committee? With local governments? National governments? As the Olympics get bigger, they demand more modernization, which becomes harder to maintain after the Games disappear. IOC President Jacques Rogge says he doesn't want "white elephants" to be left behind after an Olympics ends, but in Athens, and especially Beijing, the site of the 2008 Games, some facilities are barely being used and still cost money for basic upkeep. Who will clean up the room after the party is over?

Angelopoulos feels the IOC should shoulder more of that financial responsibility, a suggestion that surely will not go over well at the IOC headquarters in Lausanne. "Maybe it's time for the IOC to define better what they ask from their cities," she says. "It's about time, especially when the IOC is asking to build stadiums, they can change the cities. There should be more commitment from the IOC to work for the legacy of the Games. The IOC needs to play a more active role in the afterlife of an Olympic city."

Indeed Angelopoulos is not so direct now about her own legacy or her own future. She has been very involved with the U.S.-based Kennedy Center and the Clinton Global Initiative, but with financial challenges back home, unemployment, and lingering concerns about the country's conversion to the Euro, her name is often mentioned as a candidate for another, higher office. This is one question her new book does not answer. Like a good Greek sailor, Angelopoulos seems intent on riding the winds. "I always want to help my country," she says. "I believe there are ways to do things, even if some people don't like that."

The woman who shattered the glass ceiling before is never afraid of breaking more glass.

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