Keeping their options open: The IOC draws on Greek entrepreneurial flair

These regular meetings of the International Olympic Committee’s Coordination Commission over the last few years have taken on a comfortable sameness. The one last week, three days of meetings, tours, and a press conference, was the 11th. And it was little different on the surface, until you noticed that it was the last but one before the Games. One final checkup in the spring and that will be it; then by summer, the big show will be upon us. The distant-yet-suddenly-close Olympics still throw up a multitude of concerns even as they are producing some impressive numbers: over 120,000 volunteer applications on the books and multi-city interviews being held; 1.7 million tickets already sold; several more venues (doping control, the Village, the Main Press Center, the Nikaia weightlifting complex) soon to go «online.» Great, but The IOC was positive as usual, with Denis Oswald, its main overseer for Athens, getting his predictable question about why he never has anything negative to say in public while in Greece. However, reading between the lines, there were quite a few references to contingency plans and possible last-minute alterations in case things go wrong. Even now, not everything is written in stone. And clearly, taking a page from the Games’ Greek hosts, the IOC has decided that it’s useful to have an escape hatch or two while sweating it out in the sauna. Three things most concerned the IOC upon arrival – all new projects: the electric tram to the southeast coast; the suburban railway from the airport to the city; and the main stadium’s roof. Going out, they said they were mollified on each, as the government had assured them repeatedly that the two transport systems would be operational – not just the sections needed for the Games but the entire networks. The IOC’s Gilbert Felli repeated this (while pointedly reiterating that they were government promises); he also left open the possibility of substitution of rolling stock that isn’t ready for the rail line, even if the line itself is fully electrified. In other words, trains might be brought in from somewhere else. According to Oswald, the overall progress came as «nearly a shock» from the last time, although the «Calatrava roof» remains a major concern. The frame of the big covering is now lumbering into place, as those who took the tour saw on a regrettably overcast day, regaled by guides talking up the «very unique» facilities. It’s certainly a concern for the workers wandering around below its huge, curved steel sections dangling high above the ground, hoping the whole thing doesn’t suddenly give way. The rest of us didn’t even get close, which was just as well. Again, Oswald stressed that he had got government reassurances about finishing the project before the Games, while adding later that the IOC «always have to be prepared» and that it was «correct to study contingency plans.» A group that met last week will advise on what to do if problems arise. That sounds like a likelihood and not just a possibility for a project that has turned into a frightfully expensive headache and which surely gets in the way of renovations. There always did seem something amiss about decorating a cake before the cake’s even been baked. Incidentally, all the focus on the main stadium made it easy to overlook a striking development nearby. The velodrome for cycling is getting its own covering that resembles the inverted skeleton of a boat. It’s coming along very nicely, and will be a great addition to a good venue for an exciting sport. The ever-absent Mr Calatrava may be fed up with his big project but its little brother is quietly making up for it. A testing time Athens 2004, the organizers, have long heralded the state-of-the-art doping control center that will test more athletes than ever before at the Games. The drugs laboratory may well turn out to be a major measure of success next year in determining whether they’ll someday be known as the «druggie Games.» If the train’s not ready, we’ll take the bus instead; no big deal about that. But if doping badly mars the Games then it will be a very big and very sad development in a sports world already racked by allegations, many proven, of rampant drug use. The chief organizer, Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, made it clear that Athens 2004 have done all they can to follow guidelines and requests. More are sure to come, as a new «designer steroid,» THG, has just been detected (and now banned) thanks to an anonymous tip-off from a concerned coach. Already several top athletes, including Britain’s Dwain Chambers, recent world gold medalist in the 100 meters, are implicated. Oswald even ventured that this new discovery «shows the fight against doping is efficient,» although, inevitably, the policing is a step behind – and this was also a case of good luck. The Athens 2004 head said that they «want totally clean Games,» which is more realistic than the anonymous source who was quoted a few days before that as saying, «The Athens Games will be clean Games.» Such absolute defiance in the face of a new avalanche of revelations not only doesn’t do any good, it just sounds ridiculous. If it’s pouring rain, you can only say, «I’ll try to keep as dry as I can,» not, «I won’t get a drop of water on this suit.» But with further tests to come (and re-tests of past samples) for this drug and a whole batch of top athletes no doubt trembling in their trainers, it is likely that spring 2004 will be dominated by drugs talk, with world medalists possibly being banned from Athens. Much of the controversy has been in the US, where a conspiracy of silence has long reigned and where big-league sports are all but exempted from the rules. At least it has finally galvanized track-and-field officials there into belated action on imposing harsh punishment. Who knows how many past winners went undetected. What an issue this is – not least in those cases where athletes truly didn’t know, and took nutrition supplements that were criminally mislabeled by their producers only to get in big trouble. And this is only the latest chapter. Too-free speech Athens 2004 is none to happy with Kathimerini, or at least with the way the paper interprets opinion surveys. In a recent poll of problems facing Greeks, less than 1 percent said the Olympics were among them. But what should be good news became bad after this was somehow interpreted by the paper as a woeful lack of Greek popular interest in the Games. Mrs Angelopoulos-Daskalaki even wrote in expressing her displeasure and defending the growing nationwide interest in 2004. While verbal battle lines are being drawn, it is really only from here on in that we’ll see how deep the interest really is. And with other elements expressed in the poll not highlighted by the paper, notably the factor of Greek pride in putting on a good Games, it’s hard to believe that apathy will be a factor next year.