In Athens, skepticism yields to anticipation

Residents have taken more pride in their nation's Games as Friday night's kickoff has neared.

For much of the past year, the world has been presented with every possible reason why Athens should never have hosted these Olympics. For the next two weeks, Athens will finally get its chance to show the world why it could be the best choice of all.

Coming to a world divided by war and troubled by terror, Friday night's opening ceremonies promise something that has so far proved beyond the reach of politics - a time of unfeigned international unity. At times, Athens has seemed in danger of losing that chord amid the chaos of its last-minute preparations.

Yet as the world settles into the next fortnight, it is becoming increasingly clear why the Olympics wanted to come here in the first place. Though organizers and athletes will be holding their breath Friday night as hastily constructed facilities and security forces face their first true tests, there already is a breathlessness inspired not by fear or doubt, but rather by a historical resonance that defies borders and nationalities.

As countless signs remind visitors along every car-clogged mile of this city, the Games have come home.

This is more than a slogan. The Olympics' ties to the past flow through the city in veins of ancient marble and even older memories, as obvious as the great prow of the Acropolis and as subtle as the resolute chin of national pride.

This year, the marathon begins at Marathon. Greco-Roman wrestlers will complete in the land where their discipline was invented. Runners will stream through a stadium that was built three centuries before the birth of Jesus - and inspired the Olympic ideal more than 2,000 years later.

Greeks can be a proprietary people, claiming authorship of everything from drama to the very underpinnings of Western civilization. The Olympics, however, are unquestionably theirs, and in coming weeks, Greeks will seek to prove that this tiny nation bound by wine-dark seas can once again bear the world's hope in its hands.

"You feel proud that [the Games] began here ... and that they have come back," says Diogenis Papiomytis, who stands near the massive stone horseshoe of Panathenaic Stadium, site of the inaugural Games in 1896. "This is the first time the whole world looks at Greece" since then.

For some time now, it seemed as if the view would be apocalyptic. What had begun as an attempt to reconnect an increasingly commercialized spectacle to its purer roots quickly deteriorated amid charges of corruption and procrastination. If this was a test of Athens's ability to present a new and more modern face to the world, it appeared instead only to reinforce the old stereotypes - a city that merely masked its third-world mentality with the vestments of historical significance.

Yet this week, there is the slightest whisper of change. Not that the old concerns have vanished. But after months and even years of practically nothing but dirge, the tone of the past week has been cautiously positive.

In its annual session across town, the International Olympic Committee showed signs that it has learned from the mistakes of the Salt Lake bribery scandal, opening itself to more oversight and scrutiny.

Since Salt Lake, "I'd have to give them an 'A,' " says Ed Hula of Around the Rings, a newsletter about the Olympic movement.

Athletes, meanwhile, have been almost universal in their praise for the venues. In recent weeks, residents have turned from anger to grudging acceptance to excitement as construction eventually cleared and the city at last took its final shape for the Games. Mr. Papiomytis, for one, was standing in line in the 90-plus degree F. heat waiting for tickets.

"That's the easiest way to see the excitement," says John Hadoulis, a local reporter.

Every day that passes without a major mishap, the ancient echoes of the Games become clearer. And the people of Athens are desperate for the Games to succeed. Only now, though, are they permitting themselves to believe that they might - and giving themselves over to anticipation.

"It is a story for Greece, and we want to live this again," says Christos Diximos, relaxing at a seaside cafe in the suburban town of Nea Makri. "You look at the Acropolis and you say, 'Look at what we did 2,000 years ago.' We are very proud of our history."

One hundred and eight years ago, that same pride led Pierre de Coubertin here. The founder of the modern Games saw in Athens the link to sport's ability to inspire and unite throughout all history.

"A few days now and this stadium will be alive," he said before the opening of the first Games in 1896. He was speaking from Panathenaic Stadium, first built in 333 BC and excavated from an Athenian hillside only 26 years earlier. "A different crowd, doubtless, from that which last filled such a stadium, but animated nevertheless by similar sentiment, by the same interest in youth, by the same dreams of national greatness."

As in 1896, the marathon will end in this same stadium, tracing the steps that made a Greek shepherd-boy-turned-runner a national hero. As in the 5th century BC, when a legendary messenger ran to Athens to proclaim victory over the Persians and then fell dead from exhaustion, it will begin in Marathon.

The origins of events such as the javelin, discus, long jump, and wrestling can be traced directly to the shoulders of Mount Olympia. "If you look at the history of our sport, these moves have been done for thousands of years," said Greco-Roman wrestler Rulon Gardner at a press conference. "To be a part of that is what the Olympics is all about."

Today, there are no chariot races or sprints in full armor. But there is still the hope that Athens can bring out the same ideals that Coubertin spoke of in the Panathenaic Stadium. Says historian David Wallechinsky: "In a period when we are very, very modern, it's wonderful to be reminded of continuity and history."

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