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.

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