The movie The Truman Show, the “set” for the ultimate reality TV show, is so big, it’s visible from outer space. You could almost say the same for the E250m Athens Olympic equestrian park at Markopolou.
Nothing prepares you for a first glimpse of its leviathan stands amid the arid hillside, 45min south of the city.
Bolted on to the new Athens racecourse, the park has separate stadia for dressage (all-weather) and show jumping (grass). Floodlights reach into the sky, there are training arenas aplenty, an aircraft hangar-sized indoor school and 280 luxury stables that any racing Sheikh would covet.
The 6km cross-country course, exquisitely designed by Albino Galbari, slices through olive groves and is irrigated four times a day. It’s also the first time I’ve worked in a marbled press centre.
A new dual carriageway links the park to trunk roads from Athens and the new international airport.
“In all my Olympic Games, I’ve never seen anything so exciting,” said triple gold medallist Andrew Hoy after last week’s test CIC. “Everyone has been trying extremely hard and there has been lots of discussion about how to improve the organisational side. Horse sports will be very good events for the 2004 Olympics, and it’s a real credit to the centre manager, Nik Karidis, and his team.”
As the principal Olympic venues struggle to get ready – the overall Olympic cost is 6.5 billion euro (£4bn) and builders are working through the night – the equestrian park is on schedule.
It was, though, not only the scope of Markopolou that was reminiscent of The Truman Show. Things may look perfect “on set”, but for the wider horse world, Athens raises grave issues.
Freddy Serpieri, vice-president of the FEI, said that the future was “a mess”. He headed the Greek Federation when Athens was appointed 2004 host city, and understood that the racecourse would subsidise the park – a workable concept, as gaming returns more than 300m euro (£189m) a year to Greek racing. But now Mr Serpieri has admitted this funding was not guaranteed.
Mainland Greece has barely 1,600 racehorses and 2,000 leisure riders. No one knows how this tiny equestrian community will sustain the park independently after 2004. Income from the equestrian Olympics themselves will be relatively low, as space constraints limit cross-country spectators to 15,000, and a chronic shortage of hotel space could deter some visitors.
Such factors cannot escape the IOC, which may reconsider equestrian participation again before Beijing.
Greece’s best medal hope, Heidi Antikatzidis, was especially scandalised, and says: “The facilities are over the top. All these useless buildings will go into ruins, and Greeks will pay for the rest of their lives.
“I feel cheated by the IOC. They made us change the three-day event format because it was too expensive, and they allow the organisers to come up with all of this!
“I wanted to compete in my homeland but I’m not sure I want to associate myself with the continued manipulation of our sport,” she says.
Spiros Capralos, Athens 2004 executive director, confirmed that the park had run well over budget.
“It is normal for any host city to get as much as possible from the Games – that is its legacy. The test event showed that there could be a new and enthusiastic public for equestrianism. We just need some imagination. Perhaps we can find ways of attracting riders to Markopolou during the winter, as they now do in Spain.”
Heidi, though, cannot buy into this vision.
“Equestrianism might develop a little bit, but not to justify what’s been built,” she says. “Greece is too far away, Greeks are not horsey people. They want to believe a dream, but its not going to happen.”