Olympic feat: modernizing Athens
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But while spectators may feel safe and comfortable in the stadiums, getting to them may cause problems. Many Greeks say Athens' greatest Olympic legacy will be the vast upgrade of the city's previously abysmal infrastructure. Hosting duties forced Athens to build a new airport, a new metro, 75 miles of new roads, and a new tram and suburban rail network.Skip to next paragraph
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The tram and suburban rail began operating only last month, while new metro stations are scheduled to open through the next week. Experts say that while the new infrastructure is a great improvement, there's been no test period to work out potential glitches, which are already showing up. The tram - which has been heavily promoted as a key mode of transport during the Games - runs irregularly, with gaps of up to two hours between service. It has already had several accidents, including delays in service when Athenians, not used to the new system, parked their cars on the tracks.
"There are some teething problems with the new transport network," admits Michalis Liapis, Greece's minister of transportation. "It's like moving into a new house. You always have some problems to start, but as time goes by, it will be better integrated."
Mr. Liapis got a firsthand taste of those teething problems when, during a July 12 test run on a new metro extension, he was stuck on board during a power outage that swept through southern Greece. The blackout was attributed to heavy use of air conditioning during the 100-plus degree weather, a problem that may recur in August, when the city is swarming with millions of visitors.
Generators have been installed to keep power going in Olympic venues - including security centers - in case of an outage, but visitors may still experience blackouts in hotel rooms and trains. Athens city hall has installed a special multilingual telephone help line.
Workers may go a long way toward determining outsiders' views of the city.
"What we really need for the Games is a change of mentality," says Dimitris Katsoudas, a spokesman for the city of Athens.
He and others say Greeks need to bring their famous hospitality to the fore, and put their infamous hot tempers and disrespect for rules behind them. Another infamous Greek characteristic that threatens to mar the Games is an affinity for going on strike. In recent weeks, Athens' hotel employees, medical workers, and public-transport workers have all had work stoppages, and they are threatening to strike again during the Games if they don't receive Olympic bonuses.
Mr. Koloumbis says the workers probably won't strike during Greece's crucial moment. "Groups that strike will be isolated, reviled, by the rest of Greece after the Games," he says.
There do seem to be other signs that Greeks are willing to put their usual grievances behind them for the sake of a successful event. This week the government implemented tight traffic regulations, restricting fast lanes on most major roads to all traffic except official Olympic vehicles. Fears of congestion and illegal lane-jumping melted as the notoriously car-loving and rule-defying Athenians took public transport and left the lanes free for smooth test runs of Olympic shuttles.
Poor ticket sales - less than half of all event tickets been sold - were thought to have reflected a lukewarm attitude from the Greeks about the Games, but as new stadiums, stations, and beautified city squares were unveiled, Athenians suddenly lined up, purchasing a record 49,814 tickets on Wednesday. Athens' mayor recently announced a program of more than 600 free outdoor cultural events to take place throughout central Athens during the Olympics, another move that seems to have sparked some last-minute pride and excitement.
"This is the side of Athens we want people to see," says Katsoudas, the city spokesman. "[Visitors] will not have all the comforts they will have at home. But they will see the Greek joie de vivre."