An Olympic-sized dose of sport

“If it’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium» was the title of a raucous old travel movie. It describes the feeling of trying to follow seven different sports in six different locations around Attica this past month, which gave Athens a preliminary dose of what the Olympics are all about – which is, of course, politics. Actually, it’s sport, though we sometimes need to be reminded of the fact. This month, we were. You have to give ATHOC, the 2004 organizers, credit for a gutsy fight back after wearying weeks of being attacked from all sides. Many immediately wrote the test events off as a disaster, with the Schinias rowing event suffering from excess winds and the German team from food poisoning. It again conjured up old fears: that Athens was not up to the challenge; that the Marathon/Schinias rowing and canoeing facility was fatally flawed; that quality control was lacking; and even that Greece’s benevolent climate had a hidden bite to it. And it hit the host country in some sensitive spots, including its history and hearty culinary reputation. Meanwhile, Greece’s old nemesis, the security issue, was rewakened by injudicious comments, attacks in the press, and defensive rejoinders by the organizers. But the rest of the events (which finally ended yesterday) came off professionally however much commentators might have punched holes in the scorecard. Even rowing was praised by the federation responsible. Seven for seven? It seems hard to believe, but the overall organization went pretty well, problems were usefully spotted, and time remains to fix most of them. Others, however, like providing for disgruntled volunteers, really need closer attention. Venue land August was a good month for testing, with many Athenians gone and roads clearer than usual. For those few allowed in to watch, there was a tantalizing sense that, yes, the Olympics really aren’t far away, that this is a serious and major undertaking, and that the athleticism will be outstanding. It once sounded like a cliché to hear Denis Oswald, IOC overseer, declare that «things are really taking Olympic shape,» but this month proved him right. But the work is still far from over and the works themselves far too stark and newly concreted. They need adornment. I managed to make my way to several of them, despite an accreditation mix-up that I hope won’t be repeated, and my own penchant for arriving just as sessions were ending. Like the events themselves, the first try could have been more successful. As the Schinias rowing events were pulled back to frightfully early starting times, even a 9.45 a.m. arrival meant that races for the day were over. And as the place is a good hour’s ride from Athens, not counting finding your way inside, this could be a real problem for ticket holders if (when?) the Games also suffer winds and start at the crack of dawn. The artificial lake is a lot longer than you might think, over 2 km, and the temporary tent facilities rattle and lurch in the wind. But the beach is close by for a consolatory swim. Totally different was the setup at the Panathenaic Stadium, where a successful archery competition helped turn the whole test-event situation around. The sport offers a fascinating, and simple, sight: two archers taking turns winging arrows from complicated bow contraptions halfway down the stadium to tiny targets, and hitting the high numbers with amazing regularity. Evangelia Psarra of Greece was locked in a tight match with her Chinese opponent, to whom she narrowly lost. The archers alternate shots, three apiece, then after each of the five rounds there’s a pause, a musical variety show comes on the loudspeakers – Santana somehow alternating with choir music – while the arrows are collected and returned, and points confirmed. Then the horn blows three times for the next round. It is a stationary and intimate sort of sport, ideal for studious types or those sitting close up, and the venue is unsurpassed. Still, a spectator in the upper tiers might not get much out of it without a telescope. For the new generation The beach volleyball setup is part of the much-advertised makeover of the neglected Faliron Delta. The verdict so far seems mixed. For a place with supposed easy access for Athenians, it isn’t easy to access. You go down a long and (for now) bleak stretch of hot tarmac – on foot unless you had parking rights – followed by a further trek along administrative buildings supporting the venue. That said, there was a special (and frequent) bus service straight from the Fix metro station. Once inside, it’s clear that this could be one of the most popular events of Athens 2004. The arena itself is, to my mind, terrific: simple and suitably informal, with good views, open to the air, yet with most of the seating protected from the midday sun, and facing the sea. And the game is fun to watch and easy to follow. It may not equal the 2000 setting, when the event was held on Sydney’s famous Bondi Beach, but it has the makings of something good. Matches in this still-new Olympic sport (introduced in 1996 in Atlanta) are two sets of three. The one I caught pitted a talented Swiss team outmanning an uninspired Angolan pair, all four pairs of feet bare in the burning sand. It comes with a big scoreboard that recaps the action («Block!» «Spike!» «Nice!»). Breaks in the action are punctuated by loud (definitely not choral) music and smartass announcers who likely go with the territory. Another venue was introduced this month – for equestrian events at Markopoulo. And greater Athens staged two different road races. Schinias also hosted a canoe/kayak test event, and Aghios Cosmas its second sailing test event (the first was last August). With few glitches, these too went well. The equestrian venue is a sprawling, multi-stadiumed operation and a big gamble in terms of future use; it’s far from the city and needs hands-on care for horses, grass, and facilities. The athletes at each event had their grumbles but basically liked what they saw, apart from the potholes and occasional dog in the way of cyclists. It’s evident that the organization of these events will be first-rate, if rigidly so – though this also means troublesome restrictions on residents’ movement that some weren’t too pleased about. Two needs With all the emphasis on testing – of security, technology, operations, and workers – one thing was missing: spectators. The organizers erred on the side of caution, not wanting to open the floodgates too soon. (Free) tickets were available to all events, but were hard to get and inconvenient in the attempt. This was a pity, because venues were all but empty, while some first-rate competitions were on which would have been perfect for Athenians stuck in the city and for advertising some minor sports. There is a touch of arrogance in claims that all tickets for all Olympic events will be sold. People need a reason for doing things, and here was an easy but lost chance. The other deficiency – and a great surprise to all, no doubt – was the bareness of the venues. As phoenixes rising out of dusty construction sites, they are impressive; aesthetically it’s another story. Competitors at the Aghios Cosmas sailing center complained of lack of shade, even though the organizers have had a year to provide this. The much-touted seaside venues, notably for beach volleyball, crave greenery, while Schinias will likely get more trees to break the wind. One must provide space for parking but once the bulldozers are parked, some flora must become priority. Visitors from greener climes will surely notice otherwise. To be sure, landscaping necessarily follows construction, and it’s possible that ATHOC has an ace up its sleeve; truckloads of saplings and bushes by the bushel, just waiting to be planted and tended to this last winter before the Games. It’s just that, at some point, one likes to see some evidence. Attica is renowned for its light but too much of anything is never a good thing.