Despite worries, a smooth logistical ride to the Games

Plentiful buses, helpful volunteers, and efficient security have added up to 'positive surprises' for the host city.

There are many measures by which to judge the success of an Olympic Games: records broken, medals won, dreams fulfilled or dashed.

But for the hundreds of thousands of sports fans in Athens at the moment, one criterion rises above them all: buses. Because if you have to spend hours waiting in the broiling sun to get to see the records broken and the medals won, it is hardly worth the bother.

So the most welcome sight to my eyes, as I have made my way from venue to venue over the past week, has been the parking lot at each site, packed with rank upon serried rank of public transport.

I must admit to having had misgivings about coming to these Olympic Games. My memories of a previous visit to Athens were of a sweltering, polluted, traffic-clogged mess that the largest sporting event in the world could only make much, much messier.

Yet this time, I have never had to wait more than a few minutes to get on a bus. And we have sailed along the specially designated Olympic lanes on the city's main avenues - set off in red paint - as if Athens didn't know what a traffic jam was.

Games organizers say they are astonished to find local drivers staying on the right side of those red lines: Traffic police had been preparing to issue thousands of tickets.

"Our surprises have all been positive surprises," says Panos Protopsaltis, the Games general manager for transport. "The public is self-disciplined, and we have virtually no trespassers."

It helps, of course, that half of Athens is away on holiday, having fled the predicted chaos. It helps, too, when you are not certain where you are going and your Greek alphabet fails you, that many of the residents who did stay put have donned the distinctive blue, white, and orange Olympic volunteer shirts, ready to help.

There are 60,000 such volunteers around the city, handing out maps, writing out instructions, shepherding the crowds, and wishing us all good night over bullhorns in Greek and English after the day's competition. Organizers say they were flooded with twice as many applications for volunteer jobs as they needed, providing a counter to criticism that ordinary Greeks were unenthusiastic about the Games.

It is clear, however, from the many closed shutters over windows throughout the city, that many Athenians were not about to change their holiday plans in order to attend the Games. Although few seem to have expected any terrorist attack - a possibility widely forecast abroad - many feared that the preventive security measures would be a nightmare.

In fact, security is strict but not intrusive. Some 50,000 police officers and soldiers have been assigned to the Games, and you spot them everywhere. But the only time I have seen any actually interfere was to break up a minor dispute between Pakistani ticket scalpers and fans outside the hockey stadium. Otherwise the most visible reminder of a possible terrorist threat to the festivities is the blimp cruising the Athens skies, collating and coordinating information from the cameras, radiation detectors, and security outposts around the city.

At the entrances to the venues themselves, it is hard to fault the efficiency and civility of the security staff at the X-ray machines, and it does not take long to remember to take your watch off before you go through the portal.

Indeed, my only security problem so far concerned the borrowed bike that I ride between the suburban apartment where I'm staying and the nearest subway station. I emerged from the subway at half past midnight Monday night to find the spot where I had locked it to some railings empty.

But then I looked around and spotted it, newly locked to some other railings further from the road. The women's marathon had passed by that afternoon, I realized, and my bike had been in the spectators' way. Someone had gone to the trouble of picking the lock and moving the bike to a less troublesome location before resecuring it.

May that be the worst catastrophe to befall me these Games, I thought, as I cycled home through the darkened, jasmine-scented streets.

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