Athens hopes to bring home the Olympics for centennial

As the Seoul Olympics wind down, Athens is looking ahead to 1996, the centennial Olympic Games. After talking long and hard over the last decade about bringing the Golden Olympiad here, Greek officials this summer announced Athens' candidacy.

There are powerful competitors in the field - among them, Toronto, Atlanta, Sydney, and Belgrade - but Athens is the favorite for cultural and historical reasons. Winning would fulfill a Greek wish to bring the games home.

Greece invented Olympic games in 776 BC at Olympia, where they continued for another millennium. The ancient games were revived in Athens in 1896.

While Greece talks now only about vying for the 1996 games, the idea of perhaps one day hosting them permanently has not been abandoned, but merely shelved within reach.

Haralambos Nikolaou, head of the Greek Olympic Committee since 1985 and a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) since 1986, says a key Olympic ideal is the games' universality.

``The idea is for the games to occur not in just one city, but in cities all over the world. We're not asking to be the permanent home,'' he says. ``But if they need us, we're here.''

By early 1990, about $150 million worth of Olympic installations should be about 80 percent complete. By then, Athens must submit its formal application, and a year later hosts the Mediterranean Games.

This past spring, construction started on the first of four facilities - a $10 million velodrome, a $62 million closed gymnasium seating 20,000, a $47 million complex of three indoor and three outdoor swimming pools, and a print and broadcast press center. If Athens is selected, another $2 billion-plus worth of transport projects are planned to accommodate an estimated 400,000 visitors during the games.

Greek Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou announced this summer that the Greek government, in view of the country's ``historical responsibilities,'' would throw its ``full support'' behind Athens' candidacy.

``Our ambition is to make the Athens Games an Olympiad of peace and culture ... not only an anniversary, but a milestone,'' he said.

Athens seems to have won the emotional support of most of Europe. Other European cities, such as Frankfurt and Paris, have decided not to compete for the 1996 Golden Olympiad because Athens is such a strong candidate.

But Athens Mayor Miltiades Evert, an outspoken voice of the conservative opposition party, New Democracy, has criticized the Greek government for moving so slowly that Athens might be left far behind the competition.

One official close to construction of the facilities admits Mr. Evert may be right. ``No one is doing proper management. We may not be able to keep these installations on schedule because nobody is staying on top of things.''

Other critics wonder where Greece will get the money for such posh facilities. But the government hopes to make them self-financing, and the initial response has been positive. So far, the projects have generated widespread interest from Greek builders and a few big-name international contractors.

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