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Athens' Olympian Effort

After the IOC's warning, preparations moved at warp speed. Most of the subway has been finished—and what a subway, with marble floors and display cases exhibiting artifacts found during construction. The new airport was completed and named second best in Europe by the International Air Transport Association. Then, in June 2002, a bomb went off in a terrorist's hand, blowing the lid off of November 17. The group's leaders were arrested; the eye-rolling about Greece's decades-long failure to capture even a single member of the organization ceased; and the former president Bush announced that he planned to attend the Games. Moreover, by relying on a small group of deep-pocketed Grand National Sponsors, including Alpha Bank and Hyundai Hellas, as well as 11 major international sponsors such as Coca-Cola and Kodak, Athens even set an Olympics record for underwriting—this in an economic climate that has so far made it difficult for Turin, host of the 2006 winter Games, to find takers.

The relationship between the IOC and ATHOC soon established a familiar rhythm: two steps forward, one step back. Twice a year the Coordination Commission visits, with the chairman, Denis Oswald, carrying a long list of concerns. First, ATHOC shows off works in progress, then the IOC backs off as issues are resolved satisfactorily (if not ideally). One challenge was to secure accommodations for 17,000 athletes and coaches, 20,000 members of the press, and 30,000 Olympic committee members. Athens's best hotels, including the landmark Hilton and the historic Grande Bretagne, were refurbished; seven media villages (dormitories after the Games) were created for 10,500 journalists; and an Olympic village was constructed at the foot of Mount Parnitha to bunk 16,000 athletes and trainers (public housing after the Games). Finally, while cruise ships have been used as accommodations during several recent Olympics, ATHOC is proud of having secured the largest number—11, including the Queen Mary 2—to dock in the renovated, environmentally friendly port of Piraeus, housing 12,000 spectators, journalists, and members of Olympic committees.

But what about the 100,000 to 150,000 spectators expected to attend the Games each day?The manager of ships for ATHOC, CostasVeloudakis, points out that hundreds of berths for yachts are still available. Fans who have tickets—but not 68-foot cruisers—might want to try the "residential accommodation program," through which Athenians will rent out their apartments. More than 14,000 flats have already met ATHOC's stringent requirements for security and amenities, but the system is clearly a compromise.

That goes for many of ATHOC's solutions. The size of the artificial practice lake at the rowing center near Schinias was diminished to placate conservationists who argued that it covered part of the site of the Battle of Marathon (major Hellenic moment: 490 b.c., 10,000 Greeks defeat 100,000 Persians, decline of Persian empire, rise of Western civilization). Construction of a new boxing locale was relocated, and the field hockey, beach volleyball, and baseball events were downsized. And there was debate over whether to build the roof designed for the Olympic stadium by celebrated Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, or to postpone it because of time constraints; it is now being assembled in Italy, and will be placed over the stadium 90 days before the Games begin. What if the roof doesn't fit?As Nassos Alevras, deputy culture minister in charge of Olympic projects, told the newspaper Kathimerini, "It would be better not to have mishaps like that."

The cutbacks might not adversely affect the contests themselves. "There will be more temporary seating, not as much grass planted, but the IOC is going to make sure that everything is in shape for the athletes," says Kathimerini columnist John Ross. "It may be the spectators and the media that get shortchanged a bit." Some visitors will make do with apartments instead of four-star hotels, or sit in bleachers. But these changes were approved by the IOC, and last November Oswald, the chief inspector, praised ATHOC's problem-solving, saying, "Athens is really taking Olympic shape."

Four months later the IOC again had to play bad cop, with President Jacques Rogge expressing "serious concern" about delays in refurbishing the soccer stadium and the government's failure to sign a supplier for security equipment. Sure enough, within a week the contract was awarded, giving the necessary tools to its team of security advisers from seven countries, including Sydney's security chief, Peter Ryan, who is running the show with the highest Olympic security budget ever. Now ATHOC insists that all location projects are under way, and more test events will take place at their actual sites than was the case in Sydney. In April, Oswald struck a cautiously positive note. "If it goes as planned with the same speed we have reached in the last few months," he said, "we are confident that everything can be achieved and we will have very successful Games in Athens in 2004."


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