A building frenzy for the Games

On a hillside where Gypsies used to live outside this ancient city, a concrete maze of buildings is taking shape as workers scurry to finish the dusty road leading to it. By this time next year, it’s supposed to be home to 17,300 Olympic athletes and officials. For now, it’s a work in progress, much like everything else around Athens. Throughout the city, cranes litter the sky, roads are torn up and construction stops and starts in fits. Greece is teetering toward the 2004 Summer Olympics with a $5.1 billion makeover of the birthplace of the modern Games. There’s a spanking-new airport, a new subway system complete with archaeological displays, and miles of freshly paved roads. A light rail system is being built, and stadiums and arenas seem to be under construction everywhere. Nearly everything is late, after years of delays. But the Greeks are confident it will all be completed by the time the Olympic cauldron is lit next August 13. «There were a lot of problems when I first came here,» Sports Minister Nasos Alevras said. «These days we feel better. The situation is very encouraging.» The sudden urgency with which Greece is attacking the task has brought smiles to international Olympic officials, who once threatened to take the Games away. «I’m confident because I know the love for the Games that the Greeks have,» IOC President Jacques Rogge said. «They are very capable once they have decided to work very hard.» Working hard, they are. The $340 million Olympic Village that was little more than a garbage-strewn hillside less than two years ago now actually resembles a village. But the preparations are causing major disruptions to the lives of Athenians who aren’t quite sure what the city has gotten itself into. «Greece has no need of this,» said Stella Alfieri, a former member of Parliament and deputy mayor. «It already has its history and culture that everyone knows. In the end, it will have a serious, serious effect on our everyday life.» That effect is visible around Athens, where 20 years’ worth of badly needed infrastructure work is being packed into two years to prevent gridlock on the streets. There’s even scaffolding around the Parthenon as the nearly 2,500-year-old landmark gets a facelift. When it’s done – if it’s done – Athens will host 17 days of competition next summer that officials hope will showcase the city to the world as a major center for tourism and business. While Greeks grumble about the mess and worry about who is going to pay for it all, the government promises the Olympics will make Athens a better place to live and provide a much needed boost to the economy. «This will be the center of the world for two weeks,» Alevras said. «This is very important for a country that gets a lot of income from tourism.» Indeed, the stakes are high for a country rich in Olympic history yet burdened with the reality of staging the mammoth spectacle the Olympics have become. Greece has a population of only 10.6 million, and it is dependent on the whims of tourism. Yet it is borrowing some of the billions to stage the Games amid worries that the tab could go much higher. Athens is in a race against time as it frantically tries to get ready for an Olympics that will bear little resemblance to the first modern Games it staged 108 years earlier. This shows at the old airport where workers scurry about refitting an old hangar to use for basketball preliminaries. And it’s evident at the athletes’ village, where 2,300 Greek families will live after the Games. «Greeks are very nervous about the Games,» said Katerina Barbosa, an executive helping to build the sprawling athletes’ village. «They were born here and they don’t want to have the worst Games ever.» Olympic officials don’t want them to, either. Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, who led the winning-bid effort, was brought back to head the organizing committee, and organizers and government officials stopped much of their bickering and began working together. «The Greek people… I believe that they are not afraid,» Angelopoulos-Daskalaki said. «They want to deliver an historic… exciting Olympic Games.» The athletes’ village is one of the few construction bright spots so far, four months ahead of schedule and ready to be delivered to the Athens organizing committee by February. That and the $91 million state-of-the-art rowing venue were the only sites organizers wanted journalists to see on a recent tour. Still, in another troubling sign, the Games’ first test event, at the rowing center, was called off last week due to strong winds, heightening doubts about the decision to build the center in Schinias, a coastal area about 32 kilometers (20 miles) from Athens and known for sustained summer winds. Elsewhere, most of the main sports venues are still steel skeletons, if that. Pieces of the main stadium roof, designed to be an architectural highlight of the Games, have just arrived, and work began only recently on the boxing arena. Behind a fence and guarded gates at the city’s old airport, a former hangar that will host the basketball preliminaries appears gutted, and only the early steel work is done on the baseball and softball stadiums. Already, the construction problems have forced organizers to move back other test events, making a tight schedule even tighter. The first planned test of the main Olympic stadium is now set for June, just two months before the Games. There are worries that the frantic rush to finish means Athens will pay a price in slipshod construction. There are also concerns that the venues, such as the rowing center, will serve little purpose after the Olympics. Even so, Greeks are rallying around the flag to show they can pull off the Games. «This will be proof of the capacity of our government and people to produce big things,» Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos said. Some Athenians, though, worry they will end up being stuck with the bill. «The Greek people will have to pay for it after the Olympics,» 72-year-old retiree Emmanuel Mangiros said. «But it has to do with national pride and I’m proud they’re coming back to Greece.»