Athens enters home stretch in Olympics race

With a year to go today before the opening ceremony of the Athens Olympics, the organizers and the government have become aware that there is still a lot to do on the operational level to ensure a successful Games. The occasion will be marked by a special ceremony in Lausanne, at the headquarters of the International Olympic Committee, where IOC President Jacques Rogge and Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, head of Athens 2004, the organizing committee, will formally invite 201 national Olympic committees to the Athens Games. In Greece, a number of events, including concerts, will take place in Thessaloniki, Patras, Iraklion and Volos, the four cities that will host soccer qualifiers. Despite tomorrow’s festivities, however, there are lingering concerns about the organization of the Games. Now that the construction of venues and infrastructure works are proceeding at full speed, the focus has shifted onto the operational side. The first of seven test events this month, a rowing event, not only exposed weaknesses on the operational level but also confirmed continuing antagonism between government officials and the organizers. As soon as the first problems surfaced, with high winds forcing schedule changes and volunteers failing to show up, there was much gloating from certain government officials and personal criticism of Angelopoulos-Daskalaki. This persisted even after the food-poisoning incident which forced the German rowing team to withdraw. Yesterday, Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos, who oversees the preparations, said that even «the most skeptical» could see the works are about to be completed. «We must turn our attention toward how we will welcome and host athletes, officials and visitors and how we will project the picture of a modern and competitive Greece, and not just a country with a long history and civilization,» he added. His remarks were interpreted as a veiled criticism of the organizers. «I will speak after the end of (August’s) test events,» Angelopoulos-Daskalaki said, for her part, during a visit to Athens 2004’s main operations center. She told her collaborators that «any isolated, even serious, mishaps do not shake our confidence in the effort made,» adding that, nonetheless, all mistakes, whether due to wrong procedures or individual incompetence, will be recorded. Both the government and Athens 2004 officials yesterday criticized remarks made by an Australian official to a Melbourne newspaper, The Herald Sun, implying that there was concern with security issues in Athens. John Coates, the Australian Olympic Committee president, confirmed that the Australians will provide security guards for their own teams, as they did at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. However, he implied that the Australians would stage a separate security operation, prompting Athens 2004 spokesman Seraphim Kotrotsos to say that «Greece is a sovereign state and it will guarantee the safety of the Games.»