Olympic feat: modernizing Athens

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

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."

Subway glitches

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.

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.

Staying in their lanes

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."

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