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Olympic feat: modernizing Athens

By Coral DavenportCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / August 6, 2004


The latest joke making the rounds at Athens cocktail parties goes like this:

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One Greek official says to another, "Remind me, when are the Olympic opening ceremonies?"

"August 13," comes the reply.

"So soon? Oh, no! Tell me, are they in the morning or at night?"

"At night."

"Oh, all right then," says the first official. "There's still plenty of time."

There isn't much time, of course - 2,780 years after the Olympics began in ancient Greece, 108 years after their modern revival here, and seven years after Athens was awarded the Games once again, there's just one week before the curtain rises on the Olympic homecoming.

Next Friday will mark the culmination of a rocky ride, as the smallest country to hold the summer Games since 1952 struggles to bring a modern mega-event to a city and culture that in many ways are still mired in the past. There's a tense reality to the joke of the officials. After winning the Olympic bid in 1997, Greeks wasted the first three years bickering, then tried to catch up with a frenzy of construction.

As projects were plagued by delays, Greece drew harsh criticism, including a warning in 2000 from the International Olympic Committee that Athens was in danger of losing the Games altogether. In the past few months, the entire city has been a construction site, and workers have achieved Herculean feats, pulling triple shifts during seven-day weeks to finish projects that should have been started years earlier.

So now the question of whether the Greeks will host a glorious homecoming or a logistical disaster hangs over the city like its infamous summer smog. Greeks are acutely aware that this moment on the world stage can redefine the perception of their country as a 21st-century European state. It's long held the image of an impoverished, backward nation, and if things go badly, this perception will stick for years to come.

"I hope the Olympics will show the transformation of a poor, developing country into a developed, modern, European country. If the Olympics go well, it will be a final test of a modernized Greece," says Theodore Kouloumbis, an analyst at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy, a state-funded think tank.

The view from inside Athens' gleaming new stadiums will go far toward showing such a transformation. True, they've only just been completed - workers finished putting seats in the main Olympic stadium late last month.

Still, reviews of the venues have been glowing. Athletes who have competed in test events say they're delighted with the stadiums. Some, like the new weightlifting arena, have been named as among the best in the world. The crown jewel is the main Olympic complex, a modernist masterpiece by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. Soaring white arches overshadow spectators' seats, a sleek and elegant velodrome, and outdoor promenade. Another memorable venue is the seaside Tae Kwon Do arena, whose high glass walls overlook the sparkling blue Saronic Gulf.

As well, the modern will be wedded to the ancient. Greek Olympic officials love to point out that Athens will hold a "unique Games," and they're right: Spectators will watch the marathon run on the original route from Marathon itself, where the messenger Pheidippides first ran it in 490 BC. They'll see cyclists race beneath the Acropolis, arguably the most significant monument in Western civilization. They'll even watch the shotput in the ancient stadium of Olympia, where the Games began in 776 BC.

Stadiums are the backbone essential of an Olympics, of course, but in this first post-9/11 Summer Games, there's one other essential that looms just as large: security. Here, too, the Greeks have generally drawn good reviews. Their $1.5 billion security price tag is the biggest item on the Olympic budget, and the biggest Olympic security budget ever - four times the cost of the Sydney's security budget in 2000.

"Greece is making a tremendous effort to meet this challenge," says Thomas Miller, the US ambassador to Greece. "You can never do too much, you always have to be working on it, you can never rest, and in that respect I can tell you that people in this country aren't resting; they are working hard, and cooperation is good."

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