Marathon Man


Come election time, at dinner parties all across the western world (and perhaps beyond) it has become fashionable to speculate what ballots would be like if they were run like reality TV contests. Would young people be more engaged? Would voter apathy become a thing of the past? Would the outcomes be more representative of the popular will? Well, in the Greek municipality of Marathon, at the starting line of the eponymous race route, voters put this question to the test by electing a reality TV mayor in May 2014. This week the Mayor of Marathon fronted a commemorative reenactment of the battle of Marathon in typically flamboyant fashion (see above). Compared to the bombastic militaristic kitsch of the – otherwise superficially similar – battle of Salamis commemoration held last month, this was high camp, delivered with a hefty nudge and a theatrical wink.

It would be a grotesque understatement to describe Ilias Psinakis as the Greek Simon Cowell, though for a while he was the undisputed king of Greek reality TV. He is much camper, much ruder and much less touchy than his paler British counterpart. As his Instagram account attests abundantly, his teeth are whiter and he grins a lot to show them off, his permatan is a darker shade of mahogany, his hair is impossibly dark and luxuriant, his language is invariably x-rated, his lifestyle is more indiscreet. On the face of it, he is the embodiment of the Greek “bubble years”: bling, easy money, superficiality, celebrity worship, excess. And yet in the depth of the crisis, with only a few years’ experience in local politics behind him, he won the local elections outright on a platform of transparency and meritocracy, and the promise to transform Marathon into an Attic Riviera.

It helped of course that his predecessor had been fined for environmental pollution and was one of 105 elected officials investigated for fraud as part of a swoop on local authorities, while the last Mayor but one is also under investigation for undeclared earnings to the tune of €3.5 million and for fraudulent property deals relating to the construction of rowing venues in the municipality for the 2004 Olympics. “The party’s over,” he declared upon taking office, fully aware of the irony of the words coming out of his mouth, unusually free of a cigarette or a cocktail.

Psinakis may appear sui generis, but he is certainly not unique. It is hard to know what lies behind the surgically enhanced facade, but squint and you can glimpse in him parallels with such diverse political phenomena as Michael Bloomberg, Donald Trump and, closer to home, the oddball Mayor of Thessaloniki, Yannis Boutaris. The common theme is that they are all “outsiders”, whose appeal rests on the apparent lack of political taint, in an age when politicians are regarded with increasing suspicion. Their credentials lie in their accomplishments (real or spurious) in other areas, their entrepreneurial spirit which seems to sparkle against the grubby hide-bound world of career politicians, their “authenticity” versus the scripted political messages of the professional political class. These people are “doers”, or so the popular myth would have it, who can cut through the bureaucracy to bring real reform. They don’t need the money or the validation of office, therefore they are less likely to be corrupted. Plus, if you have seen someone on “Reality” TV and you take that description at face value, you feel like you already know them.

You only have to look at the examples named above to see that the outcomes from these electoral choices are not guaranteed.  A genuinely successful businessman who had the skill, the team-building ability and the persistence to see his stated vision through (whether or not everyone agrees with it or benefits from it); a blowhard whose main achievement to date has been to turn a potentially large inherited fortune into a more modest one, but could upset a national election in a global superpower; a wry, low-key eccentric who often seems to be better-loved outside his city than within. Elsewhere in Greece, celebrity politicians have had a less than impressive record, and nothing has deterred voters from selecting their champions from the even murkier world of infomercial politics.

With a background in modelling and music management (his most famous protegé is Sakis Rouvas, one of the most successful Greek pop stars of all time), Psinakis calls himself a “manager” not a politician or a mayor, but he is above all a relentless PR machine. He introduced a new civic honour, the Medal of the Legion of Marathon, which he travels the world ostentatiously by private jet to award to world leaders, diplomats and celebrities. He has been devoting a special effort to cultivating Sino-Greek relations, partly on the back of an existing twinning of Marathon with the Chinese port city of Xiamen, generating a lot of publicity for the Athens Marathon and the town itself.

His signature style though is confrontational, as many TV viewers will have encountered him as the nasty judge on “Greece, You’ve Got Talent” and “Idol”. One recent real-world example will suffice. When the national archaeological council (ΚΑΣ) refused him permission to hold a music festival around the site of the tomb of the Marathon fighters, he retaliated by calling the (female) archaeologists involved “sour”, “retrograde” and “unf*ckable” in front of the (female) interim Culture Minister, provoking controversy on all sides, while proceeding to accuse them of hypocrisy over the neglect of local monuments. While many of us have some sympathy with some of his complaints, it is hard to imagine that his approach advanced the causes of intelligent heritage management and public access to monuments!

The public verdict on Psinakis’s term so far is split. His prodigious social media footprint is thick with “likes”, ♥s, and comments exhorting him to run for Prime Minister (one imagines a good number of these may well be ironic, in keeping with the persona he has cultivated). Marathon locals are not quite as enthusiastic about his achievements on the ground, commonly referring to him as “fantomas” because of his tendency to disappear when anything needs doing. The streets may bear a closer resemblance to Naples than to Cannes, as the sanitation trucks are immobilised due to lack of fuel, while the Mayor prepares to host a VIP reception for Sunday’s race. “The party is not over,” as one jaded local resident remarked to me.

On the other hand, I couldn’t help but notice the large numbers of Chinese visitors around Athens in the run-up to the Marathon, and feel the excitement of the family group (one runner plus three dedicated spectators) who rode the tram with us to the registration site, to experience the race and see Athens and Santorini. They may not have an immediate effect on the streets of Marathon, but in terms of their overall benefit you can easily do the maths. While central government appears to be building its inward investment policy on pipe dreams like the “Summer Davos” on a barren rock, this seems like more tangible vision.

One thing is for sure – for one day a year the Marathon runners will be seeing Greece at its best. The rest is far from certain.

Image via Ilias Psinakis Instagram

Marathon Man