Sport comes knocking: Athens readies to kick off the bell lap for the 2004 Games

“Six down, one to go» sounds like really fine progress. «One down, 39 to go» sounds like a disaster in the making. However, the implications of these two pat observations aren’t what they seem. The first refers to the fact that Greece’s Olympic preparations are about to reach their «bell lap»; their nail-biting final year to make up for past delays and sprint for the finish. Now there really is no chance of escape, for Athens anyway; residents can leave the city but the city can’t leave the Games. It can’t even be kicked out; the International Olympic Committee may have mulled over that option in years past but not anymore. So when ATHOC, the organizing committee, or its head, Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, or Denis Oswald of the IOC, say there isn’t a day to lose, we’ll know that they mean what they say. There aren’t that many days left, much less years. The notion of 39 of 40 still to go, however, is actually an indication of great progress. For one of the odd things about the past few months is how low-key the organizing committee has been. Squirreled away in their artificially lit cubicles in Nea Ionia, their growing legions are super-busy preparing minute specifications for the 40 pre-Olympic events in big arenas, many of them open-air. These will arrive with a big splash next month. Seven different «sport events» (once called «test events») are on tap; some will even be open to the public, for those who couldn’t get away (or couldn’t afford to) for the traditional holiday month. Up to now the Olympics have seemed, to most of us, remotely theoretical, or a matter of dust and cranes; in a month we’ll have a much better indication of what we’re actually getting into. Testing, testing The «August seven» will open and close, appropriately, with watery events; those in between will feature athletes with bows and arrows, horses and bicycles. Several of these are timed not just for the Olympic month but for the exact days and even hours of their corresponding events in August 2004. And they offer special challenges all their own. For one thing, not one will be on at the main Olympic complex at Maroussi, which is now in the midst of a huge renovation; they will be held at some of the farthest-flung parts of Attica, including Schinias, Vouliagmeni-Varkiza, and Markopoulo, and several at facilities that aren’t even brand-new yet, but will be soon. So it’s a partly a logistical challenge for the organizers. And one, sailing, is actually a repeat event, as the «Athens 2002 Regatta» last August was the opening salvo in the two-year testing calendar. The past year has been a little like the «phony war» of early World War II: Hostilities had started, everybody knew they would continue, yet there was a long lull before the second phase got under way. We’re about to start, but this time it’s about making sport, not war. Magnificent seven The seven events are rowing, archery, equestrian, canoe/kayak, cycling, beach volleyball, and sailing. Rowing will feature (August 6-9, at Schinias) the world junior championships. Archery (August 9-15) will be held right downtown, in the Panathenaic Stadium. Three different sports will be on tap over the weekend of the Festival of the Dormition (August 15-17): equestrian, at the new Markopoulo complex (find it if you can); canoe/kayak flat-water racing, also at Schinias; and the «Espoirs» cycling/road championship, up and down the «Athens Riviera» and in the city center. An international beach volleyball tournament will be held August 19-24, while the «Athens 2003 Regatta» will wind them up August 20-28 at Aghios Cosmas, near the old airport at Hellenikon. Between 500 and 1,000 workers will be on duty at each site every day. Rowing will be a big test, and not just because it’s the first; the venue itself has been controversial, Olympic-standard (e.g. somewhat intrusive) security will be in operation, and Denis Oswald, a rower himself, will be there to check it out. Some 800 athletes from 55 countries will be there for the morning-only competitions. The archery tournament in the old stadium will take place mornings and afternoons, be televised by ERT, and involve 128 athletes (half of them women). Equestrian (the «eventing») events will involve only 30 athletes from 10 countries, but also 880 people working the venue; clearly, horses need a lot of attention. Flat-water racing (canoe/kayak, where competitors go forward, not backward) on the same days, will also be morning only, involving 180 athletes from 25 countries. Cycling, the third sport going that same weekend, is a little different; it isn’t being organized by Athens 2004 but by European and Greek cycling federations. It has two separate events; a time trial on August 15 along the coast from Vouliagmeni, and two days later, a road race in the city center. The latter, which will feature over 300 cyclists, will also inaugurate the Olympic competition next August, an inspired bit of programming. And the last two, volleyball and sailing, offer diverging possibilities for watching: Beach volleyball will be within the confines of the new arena under way at Faliron (there is a tantalizing view of this facility as you round Syngrou Avenue heading either toward Piraeus or toward Voula, just before the Monte Carlo-like roadworks). The final event, sailing, is impossible to watch from shore without binoculars (and hard enough to follow even from up close), so spectators won’t be there. Over 400 athletes from 42 countries will be, though. Semi-Olympics Unlike at the Olympics, television and fans won’t be catered to; they will almost be in the way, as these events are for testing arenas, venue teams, including volunteers, and technology (e.g. electronic timing) systems, with different events testing different parts of the overall system. And the organizers hope things go wrong, so they will have something to analyze and correct later on. They are crucial, and necessary; indeed, Athens 2004 is legally obligated to hold at least one in each venue – yet another reason why construction delays can be so damaging. Several have been postponed. But these are not fully Olympic-level, to keep costs down and to focus on the essentials. The cycling events are the most ticklish, because they are on the open road, and in two different locations, requiring both parking bans and traffic-circulation limitations (buses as well as cars) on the days of competition. The time-trial around Vouliagmeni-Varkiza will disrupt beach-going traffic, while the road race will all but close off central Athens. This will be a big test: not just for holding an event successfully but in providing well-marked, travel-friendly (or at least tolerable) alternatives. The European Union summit in April may have been momentous for the Greek government, but it was disastrous for the public because not enough alternative road routes were provided. Now’s a chance to improve on that. It should be easier; the city will be half-empty. But those who will still be here, and are willing to take a little time, may find a tasty little selection tray of Olympics mezedes awaiting them next month.