Will the air over Athens be Olympic-ready?

On most days, Thanasis Panayidou faces an average one-hour commute for his three-mile trip to work.

It's a half-hour of waiting for the bus to show up and another 30 minutes for it to crawl through traffic to his destination.

The Athens smog hardly makes the prospect of walking to and from work appealing. Taxis are too expensive, and even if he wanted to, he's only allowed to drive his car every other day under the Greek capital's antipollution laws.

It all makes the quality of life for Mr. Panayidou, a doorman at a hotel on Athens's main Syndagma Square, poor enough to make him consider leaving for good.

"You can't breathe here," he complains.

Nearby, a policeman pulls over a driver who isn't supposed to be on the road. But the driver, a government ministry worker, produces a paper saying he's exempt.

"See, it only affects little people like me," Panayidou says.

The environmental organization Greenpeace says Athens is the most polluted city in the European Union. On some days the smog is so thick that Greeks refer to it simply as the nefos, or "cloud."

But measures such as alternate driving days, incentives to replace old cars, and staggered peak driving hours are all having an impact. According to the Environment Ministry, pollution levels have been brought down by about 30 percent from 1990 levels.

"The situation has changed dramatically in the last five years," says John Vournas, the ministry's director-general.

Still, Olympic planners took Athens' bad air rap into consideration. In making their bid to hold the summer Games here, Greek organizers promised pollution levels would be brought down significantly by 2004.

"It's true that when pollution levels are high it could be hard for athletes to breathe," says Costas Bakouris, the managing director of the Athens 2004 Committee. "But pollution levels have already come down more than our bid promised to the [International Olympic Committee]."

Environmental groups say Athens has taken a tepid approach to the problem, afraid of angering industrial and business interests. Already this year, the city had to call a warning day in early March.

"You actually smell it. You touch it and taste it and feel it in your head," Stelios Psomas, executive director of Greenpeace Greece, says of the high-pollution days. While the level of older pollutants has been brought down, he says, more dangerous pollutants such as benzene and microparticulates have rapidly increased. And taxis, which constitute 30 percent of cars on the road, still run on diesel fuel.

But antipollution measures can be unpopular. "There are times when the levels of pollution overpass the limits, but the minister is afraid to take action because merchants will be mad," says Thanos Vlastos, a transportation engineer and consultant to the mayor.

And the driving-day limit? "It's not effective anymore." The number of cars on the road has tripled since the program began in 1982, and to maintain the same impact, drivers would have to be allowed on the road only once in every four days.

"The next step is one in 10," he jokes. "On the whole, there's an improvement, but not something spectacular."

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