NEWS

Oswald turns bullish on 2004 Olympics

Reiterating his expectation of a «wonderful Games» in 2004, the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) overseer for the Athens Games, Denis Oswald, insisted yesterday that all was well with the ongoing series of Olympic test events, while putting paid to many of the earlier criticisms over snafus marking this month’s unofficial start of Greece’s Olympic year. He appeared at a news conference along with Marton Simitsek of the Athens 2004 organizing committee and Gilbert Felli, his IOC colleague. Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, organizing committee president, took an unaccustomed seat in the audience at the decidedly relaxed afternoon event at Athens 2004 headquarters. All had earlier visited the beach volleyball venue at Faliron, site of the challenger tournament that also got underway yesterday, the sixth of seven test events this month alone. An upbeat Oswald was effusive in his praise of the work so far, not only by the organizers but by sports federations, the Athens Municipality, and Athenians, who showed «full understanding» of what was involved, albeit during a peak holiday period. He went out of his way to praise the volunteers («all smiles, all helpful»), who have come under criticism for not showing up at their posts. This, he said, was due partly to the early start of the rowing races at Schinias, which meant even the unpaid crew had to be at their posts by 5 a.m. Other than the wind plague, he insisted, the much-maligned Schinias event «brilliantly passed» the test. Oswald also heads the international rowing federation. Warming to his theme, Mr Oswald expressed himself «quite happy with what we have seen,» and said the venues were of «really very high quality in design and concept.» He likened the test events to a puzzle, where the various elements, like transport, security, and catering have to come together. He noted only small difficulties, which were «not a worry» with a year still to go; the technical side could be improved, and offices moved around to give personnel easier access to the events and to each other. The smallish seaside beach volleyball venue, with its endless salmon-colored administrative buildings flanking it, is an evident example of this concern about proximity. This week Oswald also visited the Olympic center at Maroussi, where he saw some progress on building the stadium roof by Santiago Calatrava, and the long-delayed Karaiskaki Stadium, which will host soccer matches. He was asked repeatedly about the new tramway, of which he is «quite impressed» – the qualifier «quite» popped up quite a few times in his answers – noting that the system will be tested from October and fully delivered in April 2004 – with upward of 800 workers on the project virtually nonstop. On the subject of the roof, he indicated concern, posing the issue as a big but (just) doable challenge, with a «very tight» timetable. And he noted, with slightly chilling logic, that «no one has any choice, so it will be finished.» Asked about the disquieting possibility of a Games-time blackout similar to what hit the USA and Canada last week, he said «obviously that would be a catastrophe,» but he had been assured by Prime Minister Costas Simitis – who himself visited several venues on Monday for a post-holiday update – that adjustments made four years ago (after Athens suffered a brownout) would prevent this from happening in Athens. Queried about press reports of lax security preparations, Oswald turned the matter around in his usual quipping way by asking whether his audience (of journalists) actually believe what they read in the press, while insisting security was «a priority for all of us.» Finally Felli, a man of few press-conference words, was full of praise, telling Greeks they «should be proud of themselves» for progress – so far.