NEWS

Athens security success

They were not sports events. They were not Olympic events. They were not even Olympic test events. But the organizers of next year’s Athens Olympics are holding their heads up high after a series of high-profile European Union meetings in Greece, including a political summit, went off without a hitch. A two-day gathering of more than 40 European leaders in mid-April was the biggest event Athens has ever hosted and the verdict of most delegates and observers was that the Greek capital rose to the occasion. «On the day before we were a bit worried, there was still a lot of work going on but then everything went quite smoothly,» one Brussels-based delegate said after the EU summit. Athens Deputy Mayor Theodoros Skylakakis, in charge of the city’s preparations for next year’s Games, conceded that in Greece most work tended to get done when deadlines got tight. «This is our disadvantage and advantage, we are very good toward the finish; we can do a lot when time is pressing,» he told Reuters. Syrtaki style The «It will be alright when the time comes» attitude regularly has international Olympic officials tearing out their hair. Jacques Rogge, the head of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), has compared the preparations to Greece’s traditional syrtaki folk dance with its slow start and furious finale. IOC inspectors regularly issue warnings about the pace of Olympics preparations and say tight timetables do not allow them to relax and take at face value assurances that everything will be ready on time. But the EU meetings – a kind of Olympic logistics test event for the city – has boosted Athens officials’ confidence that come mid-August 2004, the city will be ready for the Games. The EU summit was a logistics nightmare with venues for meetings scattered around the choked city center and leaders and their aides staying at a number of locations. Security concerns Security concerns in the wake of the US-led invasion of Iraq and anti-war protests during the EU leaders’ gathering piled more pressure on the city. «We believe that the city coped very well,» Skylakakis said. Greece mobilized 20,000 security forces for the summit in the country’s biggest ever deployment, which will be repeated for the Olympic Games on an even larger scale. «The only thing we have to look at again is better support for our people who had to work long hours and will have to do it again for the Olympic Games,» police spokesman Lefteris Economou told Reuters. Officials are well aware that the 18-day Games will be a far bigger test. «The Olympic Games are a different ball game. We will need to step up our efforts tenfold, 100 times, to handle it as smoothly as the events in April,» said Skylakakis. «But as time goes by, the Olympic spirit catches on. We’ve already done much and we are very optimistic.» Athenians pay But the success had a price and it was the Athenians who paid, as they will during the Olympics. Aware of Athens’s notorious traffic chaos, Greece took no chances and virtually shut down the city center for two days as well as giving civil servants a day off for the main meeting. «I thought the whole thing was extravagant and disrespectful, shutting all those streets and inconveniencing the city’s citizens,» said Nikos, a 29-year-old graduate student. «I will try to leave the city for the Olympics. I don’t think Athens will be a good place to be during that fortnight,» he said. The EU gatherings, which also included a finance ministers’ meeting, showed there could be a security downside to hosting an event like the Olympics in as historic a setting as Athens. One diplomat recalled that during the summit British Prime Minister Tony Blair was visibly uneasy at walking through parks to get to venues. «He kept on stopping every now and then and asking his security people whether it was OK to proceed,» the diplomat said. (Additional reporting by Cynthia Malakasis.)