Testing time for the Games

It was clear that something had changed a few mornings ago, when I woke up in a pool of sweat and to the sound of banging doors. August heat, August wind: they are a classic staple in this classical land. Uncommon heat has been tormenting the rest of Europe, while here in Greece the problem has been commonly high seasonal winds. The meltemia appear with almost clock-like regularity, both in the calendar and during the day: They blow in early August, and rise shortly after sunrise, dying down at sunset. They never seemed capable of disrupting rowing races in an artificial pond away from the seashore, and the weather plague this week at Schinias, near Marathon, gave news agencies and the I-told-you-so crowd the perfect opportunity to jump all over the organizers. The second test event out of 40 for the 2004 Olympics, like the highly successful first one a year ago, for sailing, has been a boat-and-water proposition. But unlike the Athens 2002 Regatta (and the coming one for 2003, with boats already in training in Faliron Bay), the wind has been an enemy rather than a challenge: upturning boats and dumping rowers in the choppy waters on Wednesday, and canceling races yesterday. It’s another indication that of the thousands of parameters the organizers (ATHOC) have to worry about, the same element of nature can be both a necessity and a bane. Facilities may be first-rate, as the rowing federation, and IOC overseer Denis Oswald and ATHOC head Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki all gamely stressed, but there’s more involved. Ingenuity needed While these problems are drawing the predictable media ridicule, high winds could disrupt much else in August 2004. Tourists trying to get from nearby islands to events in Athens could have their boats canceled due to rough seas, and their trips all but ruined because of missed events. Javelin throwers and pole vaulters will be cursing the skies. Runners may have any world records disallowed. Baseball and softball outfielders will find it hard to catch high-flying balls. Tennis players will be lunging and lobbying with less confidence. Archers in the old stadium – set to begin their own test event this weekend – might have a hard time finding their targets. Outdoor events are always subject to such conditions, and these are now common knowledge and can be factored in by athletes in training. Still, the solutions to the Schinias conundrum can’t be evident to those scratching their heads at ATHOC. Move the rowing events elsewhere? There are lakes available, like placid Lake Plastiras to the north, but they are far away. Plant trees to block the wind? That was ruled out because the resulting swirls would create undue advantage for some rowers, but it might well be reconsidered. Pull the starting times back? They already tried that, starting at 6.30 a.m. this week, with Marton Simitsek of ATHOC saying that it wasn’t hard to do this since rowers get up early anyway. (Perhaps he could suggest 4.30 a.m. and see the reaction.) Leave things as they are and let them battle the elements? That might well turn even more rowers into swimmers as their calibrated boats get upturned. These test events are testing both ingenuity and patience. Some pundits saw it as a sort of celestial payback or jinx, with the Schinias venue, controversial from the word go, finally getting its due in the form of a disrupted event and a new set of worries for next year. Was it the revenge of Miltiades, the Athenian general who led his forces to unexpected victory at Marathon over the Persians in 490 BC? Even before the event began, the entire German delegation of teenage rowers fell ill from gastroenteritis (apparently picked up before they arrived). With the German team having their rowing championships, their summer trip to Greece, and their tender insides all disrupted, perhaps it was Montezuma’s revenge instead. Not the first time Though the climate in Greece is fairly benign and invites outdoor activities, Greek weather and Greek Olympics have had a rough time cooperating with each other historically. In the so-called Greek National Olympics (the Zappas Games) of the mid-19th century, the weather played a major role. The first installment, in 1859, was held bravely in late November, which is usually cool or rainy or windy. That year it was freezing. As if to overcompensate, the organizers of the 1896 Games scheduled them for March: which, again, is usually cool or rainy or windy. That year it was all three. Crown Prince Constantine, the main organizer who had bragged beforehand about Greece’s clear blue skies and wonderful climate, spoke a little too soon. The Olympic schedule had to be stretched out an extra day (imagine trying that nowadays), several events were washouts (including the closing ceremony, which was postponed by a day), and the sailing was canceled. This time around they are scheduled for midsummer; and we still have weather problems. The ancient Greeks believed that the weather, like much else, was at the mercy of their deities. They even had a god, Aeolos, who controlled the wind: a powerful but fickle force that affected a great deal in that pre-industrial world. Is what we’re seeing the curse of Aeolos, rather than the revenge of Miltiades? Maybe some prayer would help too. Revisiting the Marbles Apart from the sessions of the International Olympic Academy, which opened at Ancient Olympia this week, the other big Olympics-related story this week pertained to the Parthenon (Elgin) Marbles. A midweek story spectacularly claimed they were heading back to Athens after a pathbreaking agreement for a long-term loan to Greece in time for the Games. The excitement lasted all of a day, after which the British Museum, which has held them for two centuries, issued a firm denial. Greek officials, however, continued to insist that a deal was in the works. A breakthrough there would be the biggest story of the summer; and, like the perennial weather patterns, it’s an old story against a new background.