If the Athens 2004 summer Games run smoothly, says Eleni N. Gage, an improved standing in the eyes of the world might be Greece's real gold medal

"I hope you're not late," the cabdriver said, risking my life along with his yellow paint job as he wove precariously past double-parked cars clogging the Athens streets. "The city is all torn up with construction for the Olympics. What do you think is going to happen with those?Are we going to come off 'red-faced'?" he asked nervously.

The same question nags at every Athenian, from cabbies to Cabinet members. Will the 2004 Olympics—to be held in Athens for the first time since the Games were revived there in 1896, and just the second time since 393—be a source of national pride, or an embarrassment confirming Greece's low status in the European Union?Because the Athens organizers don't just want to host nice little athletic contests and hand out a few medals—they want to announce to the world that Greece is a strong, modern European nation. As Prime Minister Costas Simitis has said, "Every discussion about the Olympic Games in Athens is a discussion about the country's future."

The 2004 Olympics come at a key juncture for Greece, which has shifted from being the E.U.'s poorest country to becoming a leader in the Balkans, a position that has grown increasingly important ever since the E.U. welcomed 10 new member-states in April (more are expected to join). Greece has the fastest economic growth rate in Europe, partly because of investment for the Olympics. Over the past decade, its largely homogeneous population has absorbed in a surprisingly peaceful fashion more than a million immigrants from its Balkan neighbors and other formerly Communist countries. For the city of Athens itself, the Olympics are even more of a coming-out party. "I would really like to show ancient and modern Athens to the world in a very new light," says Mayor Dora Bakoyannis, who in January became the first female leader in Athens's 3,000-year history, and the first of any city to hold the Olympics. "Everybody going back [home] will have fallen in love with Athens."

When the International Olympic Committee awarded Athens the Games in 1997, critics argued that there wasn't much to love about a city that was considered polluted, crowded, and plagued by domestic troubles ranging from stray dogs to terrorist assassins. The arch-conservative Washington Times later ran an editorial suggesting that President Bush urge the IOC to relocate the Games, citing the Greek government's inability to quash the November 17 terrorist group. Named after the 1973 date when the military junta then ruling Greece sent tanks against a student protest at the Athens Polytechnic Institute, the Marxist group targeted right-wing Greek politicians as well as diplomats from foreign countries—such as Britain and the United States—whose governments were believed to have supported the junta. November 17 had claimed 23 victims in 28 years.

The Athens Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (ATHOC), still smarting from losing its bid to host the 1996 centennial Games, won over the IOC with big promises: the Metro would be expanded, a new airport built, hotels upgraded, the city transformed. Yet 2 1/2 years on, it seemed that ATHOC was all talk and no action. In April 2000, the IOC's then-president, Juan Antonio Samaranch, warned that preparations were so behind schedule, the Games were in danger of being relocated.

Some delays were to be expected: with not quite 11 million citizens and a combined landmass smaller than Alabama, Greece is one of the tiniest countries to undertake an Olympics. And everywhere, Athens's rich ancient past kept popping up—literally. Metro extensions were hindered for years as construction workers routinely unearthed fifth-century b.c. bronze statues where 21st-century subway platforms were meant to go. This had not been a problem in Sydney or Atlanta. But many setbacks could be blamed on legendary Greek bureaucracy, or what John Hadoulis, a reporter for the Athens News, describes as "the arduous process of land appropriation, and the plethora of court cases brought against many venues by local citizens' groups." Not to mention the government's internal politics. Since being awarded the Olympics, Greece has had four ministers of culture and two public works ministers; ATHOC itself is now on its third chief, Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, a lawyer-politician and national celebrity known for her stylish suits and steely determination.

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."

Everyone is painfully aware that the success of the Olympics depends not only on preparation, but also on luck. Organizers will pray that it won't rain unseasonably in August 2004, as it did last summer. And fear of a terrorist attack looms. Although Angelopoulos-Daskalaki insists that security "will always remain our top priority," safety can never be guaranteed. That became clear last December when Mayor Bakoyannis just missed being shot by a psychiatric outpatient. Bakoyannis admits, "Everything about the Olympics worries me until it works."

Still, ATHOC and the IOC remain optimistic, with Rogge touting Athens's "extra dimension of culture, history, but also ethical values." The Olympic Truce Foundation will revive the ancient pact among participating nations not to wage war during the contest; the Olympic Torch relay will pass through all five continents for the first time; and a four-year Cultural Olympiad is being staged, with events ranging from classical plays to a concert by Philip Glass. The marathon will follow the path of the original run (according to legend, a Greek soldier covered the 25 miles from Marathon to Athens with news of victory—and promptly died). The cycling race will circle the Acropolis and other ancient sites. Artifacts unearthed during construction will be exhibited, including a piece of Hadrian's aqueduct, to be displayed in the Olympic village. "As long as Athens doesn't go down in history as the most chaotic Games ever," Hadoulis says, "the city could benefit in the eyes of tourists worldwide."

Regardless of how Athens will be perceived during the Olympics, after the Games it will have been transformed. Athenians will gain new access to the sea through the renovated Faliro coastal zone, a seaside resort turned landfill that is being revamped for the Olympics in what Oswald calls "one of the most impressive urban rehabilitations in Europe." But the biggest improvement in this notoriously congested city might be less traffic, thanks to new Metro lines, trams, and roads. Angelopoulos-Daskalaki says that while Athenians are "inconvenienced now with all the work going on, during the Games they will see a new city."

In the end, it may be future visitors who benefit most from the makeover. Tourists who used to give Athens wide berth and head for the islands could soon be tempted by upgraded hotels and museums, multilingual info kiosks, and pedestrian walkways linking archaeological sites. The enhanced facilities are already luring travelers: in May 2004, the World Congress on Information Technology will draw 2,200 visitors. But the most eagerly anticipated guests are those who might be introduced to the city by watching the Games. Mayor Bakoyannis's hope is that when TV cameras follow cyclists whizzing past the Acropolis, viewers will see Athens as "a city that I must visit at least once in my life"—and that Greece's reward for its Olympian efforts will be nothing short of a new identity.