Athens Struggles to Prepare for 2004 Games

Andrea Gerlin
Philadelphia Inquirer
July 30, 2002
It was the Greeks whose ancient language produced the word "chaos."
And that word seems unnervingly apt these days when describing the
state of preparations for the Olympic Games scheduled to be held in
Athens in 2004.

In a country that readily admits its cultural tendency to procrastinate, it is hardly surprising that the race to welcome 11,000 athletes and an estimated one million visitors is going to be dramatic. Its outcome is anything but assured.

Less than 26 months before the Games begin, work has yet to begin at several major facilities and the region is short at least 15,000 hotel beds. A tram system connecting key venues is not expected to be complete until the last possible moment. Organizers also have had trouble finding volunteers.

Understandably proud that the Games are returning to the place where they began, Greek officials deny that they are ill-prepared or that any of the 1,800 Games-related projects won't be finished by August 2004. Even the Socialist government's main opposition, the conservative New Democracy Party, is restrained in its criticism.

Fanni Palli-Petrallia, a New Democracy member of Greece's parliament and former minister of sports, said coyly: "We cross our fingers and hope everything will be all right."

Preparations got off to a bad start as organizers and the government clashed. Then Prime Minister Costas Simitis and his government got a rude surprise last year when International Olympic Committee officials who awarded the Games to Athens in 1997 began realizing how far behind preparations were. A crisis ensued, and the IOC's coordination committee considered relocating the Games before finally proceeding with Athens.

Stumbling Progress

Simitis' government, which faces elections before April 2004, declared Olympic preparations its top priority. It took control of all government-funded construction and renovation previously overseen by the organizing committee and moved completion dates for most projects up to January 2004 from May 2004.

The realities of modern Greece, however, have continued to intrude.

Environmental groups protested the choice of some sites, including the rowing center in Schinias, northeast of Athens, and the long-distance running route from Marathon to Athens. Discoveries of ancient artifacts, a frequent occurrence whenever a trowel is lifted in Greece, caused some minor delays.

The early loss of so much time has probably most impeded progress. "The only thing you cannot buy with $1 billion is time," Palli-Petrallia said.

Time will be short to finish certain projects in 18 months. Work has been especially slow at the Hellinikon Olympic Complex at the old airport in south Athens. Converted hangars and new construction will house baseball, basketball, handball, fencing, softball, and field hockey arenas and a slalom course for canoeing and kayaking. But little progress has been made there.

The same is true at the Panathinaikon Stadium in central Athens, where the Olympics were revived in 1896 and the 2004 marathon will finish.

Today, weeds sprout from cracks in its marble, litter is strewn about, and graffiti have been sprayed on walls. Organizers and government officials argue that little more than sprucing up is required there and at other existing facilities, such as the Olympic Sports Complex and the Peace and Friendship Stadium.

Perhaps. But those facilities will house nine sports. Some had not even been closed to the public as of the middle of June. Many are outdated and require substantial modification, reconfiguration of courts and lanes, thousands of new seats, and the addition of lighting, swimming pools, and roofs.

Shortage of Beds

If the ambitious work is completed in time, it should make for great television. But some visitors to Athens during the Games may find the on-the-ground experience not so rewarding. A 15-year hotel building ban means that rooms are in short supply, and the organizing committee has already claimed most of the better ones for the IOC and its guests.

What is being offered are 85,000 hotel beds within 75 miles of Athens for the estimated 100,000 overnight guests expected for each of the 16 days.

Spyros Capralos, executive director of Athens 2004, said organizers hoped to make up some of the difference by docking 12 cruise liners in the port as floating hotels. Other visitors, he said, may stay on islands and come in by boat or plane for the day. Homeowners who vacate the city are being encouraged to offer their houses for rent.

Like all Olympic Games, this one needs volunteers. So far, only 20,000 people in Greece have responded to the organizers' recruitment drive seeking 60,000. The government has considered giving civil servants two weeks of paid vacation to "volunteer" during the Games.

"Volunteering is something which is not in our culture," said Stratis Stratigis, an Athens lawyer who was selected to head the organizing committee in 1998 but resigned in 1999.

In this famously congested city, less than half the nearly 120 miles (193 kilometers) of new road, tramway, suburban rail, and bus lanes needed to serve major facilities has been completed.

Progress on the tramway is especially worrisome. It has been beset by delays as neighbors have protested building plans. No track has been laid; the ground is still being prepared. A consultant hired by the IOC concluded that the project could be finished by May 2004 but would be the "fastest ever built."

To be sure, rapid progress has been made on some projects. The 2,296-apartment Olympic village in north Athens that will house athletes in 32 sports, as well as their coaches and trainers, is two months ahead of schedule.

Government officials have carefully drawn up security plans, helped by expert advisers from past Olympic host countries and a budget of $600 million.

A clock along a busy highway outside the Olympic Sports Complex counts the 761 days left until the opening ceremonies on August 13, 2004.

Costas Cartalis, the Greek Ministry of Culture's general secretary for the Olympic Games, said: "We still have 26 months, and we count the days."

Copyright 2002 Philadelphia Inquirer

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