Touching all the bases for the Games: Athens prioritizes and gears up for 2004

With summer having unofficially arrived, finally, after a late and (for Greece) wet spring, preparations for the Athens Olympics are also, finally, running on all cylinders. Some preliminary aspects are in fact already winding up, like the first phase of selling Games tickets. Others are just getting set out in more concrete form, like the cultural program for summer 2004 and, much more imminently, the scaled-down plans for the test events this August. And some represent a continuation of ongoing practices, like the latest international press briefing that just concluded this week at the Athens resort of Kavouri – which itself doubled as another quick-run visit by some members of the Coordination Commission of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) which oversees the Games. They were here to check on some urgent matters, of which there remain many, but these were not clarified to those outside. Apart from all this, the usual oddball development or two arose to provide some lighter relief for those trying to follow it all. Seats, please The ticketing program has been under way since mid-May and its first phase will end in a week’s time. Initial reluctance by Greeks to buy tickets so far ahead seems to have been partially overcome, though information got a bit mangled before a press release clarified the trends. The flier cited the organizers’ Marton Simitsek as claiming that Greeks account for about two-thirds of all ticket orders (via the Internet and Alpha Bank), and other Europeans for the rest – though earlier, Athens 2004 ticketing manager Mary Manolopoulou had said that, at least in the third week, those numbers were the other way around and that it was other Europeans who accounted for two-thirds of ticket sales. Either way, early birds still get the worms, or, in this case, the better (non-bird’s eye) views and choicer seats. In fact, some sessions and perhaps even events may already be oversubscribed, in which case a random selection process will be used – the same used at prior Olympiads, though how exactly it works remains unclear. Initial allocations will be made next month. «Participants» in Phase I not only get the first shot at the best seats; they also get an inside track on a second round of ticket sales in the fall, at least during the first two weeks of it. Thus the organizers really have emphasized the up-front nature of the program: In this first phase, you have to order and pay for tickets without knowing if you’ll get to see the session – or even the sport(s) – that you want. In the second and third phases, seat confirmation will be immediate but there may not be much choice. It remains to be seen how many unhappy ticket holders will emerge once those first, choice seats are assigned, and how many Greeks anxious to cheer on their esteemed national weightlifting squad from the front row will wind up watching badminton from the rafters instead. There is a little anxiety and even some deliberate vagueness sewn into the whole process, with organizers not saying which events are already sold out – if any. They hope to sell up to 10 percent of the total (3 million for sale, out of a total of 5.3 million seats available, averaging about 35 euros a pop) by next week. Simitsek was also insisting that all tickets would eventually be sold. But as the actual tickets won’t be available for another year, it really is an exercise in virtual sports for a while yet. More briefings Some of this information was provided for the benefit of world press representatives, here in Athens this week for the third of a series of press briefings on 2004. Coordination Commission Chairman Denis Oswald was his usual combination of optimistic and cryptic, reiterating his belief that Athens would have «magic Games» next year, while also being «different» from previous ones, however that might be interpreted; scaled down, lower key, more flexible? He has said before that the Games would definitely suffer due to prior delays, but he has also praised Greek ingenuity in the past as capable of overcoming various obstacles. And Oswald, along with his IOC colleague Kevan Gosper, gushed about the press operations and facilities as the best ever for an Olympics, and the first that will house the press in «villages» just like the athletes. Athens 2004 President Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, for her part, also reiterated a familiar mantra, that she was confident but not overconfident about success – and that Athens 2004 and the media had the same aims (which, alas, are not always apparent). However much the Games do succeed, the media will be a huge part of it; indicating, again, that the messenger sometimes really does seem as important as the message. Olympics carousel The Olympics are not only about sport. As if to prove the point, Parliament’s interministerial Standing Committee of Cultural and Educational Affairs keeps a periodic eye on proceedings, visiting the headquarters again last month. It was also revealed that a concerted effort will be made to co-opt local food producers in the massive meals operation. Few visitors will go hungry in August 2004. And recently the cultural program for the Games, «Athens 2004 Culture,» was unveiled, a series of artistic events running in conjunction with the Games, but separate from the much bigger, state-run Cultural Olympiad. It will include art exhibits at the Museum of Cycladic Art and at the Zappeion Hall, and (mostly free) events during the Olympic summer, both in Athens and at other Olympic cities, and at public squares as well as at competition venues. It also includes a cultural program for the Paralympics in September 2004, all scheduled indoors in order to conform to accessibility regulations for the disabled. Appreciation of art and respect for the disabled will thus be admirably combined into one. And finally, the French, normally self-conscious cultural guardians, let their guard down in reference to Athens 2004 and wound up with a black eye as a result. The incident had all the makings of a late-night prank that got out of hand and nearly precipitated a diplomatic incident, in the best traditions of farce. A question on a French Institute-administered language oral exam in Athens included the proposition: «It is ludicrous to hold the 2004 Olympics in Greece.» Once they got wind of this, the Athens organizers issued a rather forbidding response, calling it «unfortunate, to say the least,» and coolly pointed out that as Paris had just bid for the 2012 Olympics, it could find itself on a rocky road if it didn’t do something and fast. Suddenly an exam question in Greece was threatening to lose Paris its Olympics opportunity along with untold millions in potential revenues. The French Embassy apologized, with a heavy heart, saying it «shares the emotional burden» of problems caused by this question, even though the operative point of the question was to test students’ language ability, not cast aspersions on the Athens effort. Even President Jacques Chirac had to weigh in with his regrets. And the French authorities, naturally, retain «complete confidence» in the Games, along with newfound, hard-earned sensitivity. It was not disclosed who came up with that question, or whether the guillotine was temporarily re-instituted to deal with them.