Lessons for Athens from Salt Lake City

While the Utah Olympics set the bar for readiness and security, Greek games face bigger hurdles.

A world away, Athens is on the brink of chaos. In the heat and hustle of preparation for August's Olympic Games, jackhammers rumble on sidewalks and spotlights turn night to day for 24-hour construction crews.

Yet it is here in Utah, on a snowy mountainside where only the crunch of boots breaks the silence, that the troubles facing Athens are the most obvious. Two years ago, the events at this complex of ski jumps and a bobsled track ran as precisely as an Olympic watch, adding to an opinion that has become Games gospel: Salt Lake put on the best organized Winter Olympics in history.

While Athens still struggles to pour concrete at some of its Olympic sites, Salt Lake shuttle buses were running time trials among completed venues weeks before the Games began.

To be sure, Salt Lake faced a far easier prospect than Athens. An ancient city of ancient roads and sometimes-ancient attitudes must put together an event so massive that it makes the Winter Games look like a recess game of tiddlywinks. Still, a look at Salt Lake's blueprint for success shows where Athens strayed - and what the consequences could be not only for August but also for the future of the Olympic movement.

"The Salt Lake Games proved that if you are very dedicated and detailed, there's no reason you can't have an excellent Games," says John Bennion, a manager on the Salt Lake Organizing Committee who now oversees Utah Olympic Park here.

In a quiet corner office two years removed from the drama of holding an Olympic Games, that can seem a statement of self-evident simplicity. Yet the problems that have plagued Athens, distilled down to their essence, are just that - a lack of focus and effort.

For all the allegations levied against the initial organizers of the Salt Lake Games - from bribery to fraud and conspiracy - few include complacency.

Almost as soon as Salt Lake was designated for the Games, organizers secured federal funding to widen highways connecting the venues. All the new light-rail lines designed to carry spectators around the city were finished by New Year's Eve 2001, so they could be tested by throngs of revelers. And 11 months before the Games began, construction crews completed the last venue.

If anything, attention to detail was in excess. For instance, once the Games began, a warning sounded at headquarters when a GPS tracking showed that a driver had disappeared from his planned route. Attempts to reach the driver by radio failed, so officials dispatched several Secret Service agents. The agents found him 20 minutes later - eating breakfast in a McDonald's.

The contrast with Athens could hardly be greater. Less than 100 days before the opening ceremony, the Olympic stadium's arched steel-and-fabric roof - considered the architectural centerpiece of the Games - is still under construction, with workers pulling triple shifts. This week the International Olympic Committee (IOC) threw down a deadline to have arches in place by May 20 or the project must be abandoned.

Elsewhere, a planned roof over the swimming venue has been scrapped, angering athletes, and work on the rail line between Athens and the coastal venues remains frantic. "This is a job that should take seven years to finish," says project supervisor Lefteris Tsitsanis. "We're doing it in two."

Faster, higher, stronger?

That has been a mantra for the Athens Olympic Games - and could be only a recipe for trouble. By finishing its venues well ahead of time, Salt Lake was able to hold test events there, working out glitches in timing systems, security procedures, and crowd control. In Athens, the Games themselves will serve as the first full test run for some venues and transport systems.

"The main risk is that the first two or three days will be a real challenge," says Bennion, noting that spectators - not athletes or media - will be affected the most if Athens has to cut corners.

Part of the problem stems from the Athens organizers' ambitious vision. While the Winter Games don't call for many venues, Salt Lake saved money and time by using existing facilities.

Athens, on the other hand, seems to have started from scratch, building new venues and radically altering old ones - and its difficulties could lead to changes in how ambitious Olympics organizers can be. "They overreached," says Jeffrey Segrave, an Olympic historian at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

No 1. enemy: procrastination

Yet the greatest enemy of Athens has been procrastination, say others. In 2000, the IOC became so concerned by the city's inaction that it nearly took the Olympics away from Greece. Even now, it has for the first time bought cancellation insurance in case the Games need to be called off. Indeed, three bomb blasts outside an Athens police station earlier this week have raised concerns security - not just organization.

"The Greeks needed to rid themselves of the mind-set of 'not to worry,'" says John Lucas, an Olympic historian who has attended every Summer Games since 1960. "Folks in Utah, from the day they got the Games, started working 100-hour weeks. Now they're doing it in Athens."

New leadership has helped. As businessman Mitt Romney arrived to rescue the Salt Lake Games after the bribery scandal, so Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki has brought a more businesslike focus to Athens.

The difference is that Mr. Romney's predecessors had achieved much more than Ms. Angelopoulos-Daskalaki's. From the beginning, Salt Lake needed to put on a flawless show - to counter the perception of Utah as a peculiar religious enclave and to get rid of the sour taste of the disorganization of Atlanta. Only now has Athens felt that same pressure to avoid becoming a global laughingstock.

Says Mr. Lucas: "In the end, they will pull it off because it is a matter of national pride."

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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