When even the interludes are busy

When the cat’s away, the mice will play would be a rather unkind interpretation of the Athens 2004 preparations, at least as far as 2001 is concerned, even if this year’s well-publicized venue construction delays and political juggling might lend credence to such an interpretation. But now the cat’s back in town, in the form of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and prowling around to see what’s new, what’s being done, and what’s on tap in the near future. Every three months or so, the Coordination Commission, the group responsible for overseeing the Olympics preparations which is headed by a member of the IOC board, Denis Oswald, returns for its regular inspection visit. This time around the visit feels a little different, a little more subdued, than the last time, in September, when a full-blown set of meetings took place and the IOC president, himself, Jacques Rogge, was in town briefly – not to mention that the World Trade Center had just been destroyed. Then, 45 IOC members took part; this time only around 20 are here for two days of meetings to grease the wheels of communication by sharing information and working out kinks in the system on some lesser issues. And their mere presence here is a matter of cajolement as well as conferment and contemplation of what’s been happening over the past few months. It’s a rather strange process in which they all gather behind closed doors, then tell the world what they’ve concluded, half-bluntly and half-diplomatically, when it’s done, in today’s case. Those not privy to such meetings (many of which focus on technical details like communications and security, which sound tedious but are, of course, crucial) have to speculate and talk around as much as about it, read between the lines, and convince themselves they’re doing something useful for themselves or for those they’re interpreting for. Something doesn’t quite jive about these firmly closed-door sessions for a festival celebrating openness, but then, life is full of paradoxes. On semi-quiet notice This is also a strange interlude, both for the Athens Games preparations and for the IOC itself. For the IOC, it is a time of burning candles – even if not fighting fires – at both ends. While the left hand is trying to keep tabs on what’s going on in Athens and make sure that the process keeps moving, the right hand is now fully preoccupied with putting on the Games in Salt Lake City in less than three months’ time and in a time of war, recession, and retrenchment in the tourism and travel industry worldwide. For the preparations in Athens, it only seems like an interlude. It would be all too easy to coast from now until March, when the Salt Lake Games will be over and when, at long last, the Athens Games will be next in line. It has been a year of personality clashes and progress that was promised but didn’t quite happen, as well as admonishments of varying degrees of urgency from the IOC. But the next three months will also be a test of sorts; it will be a test of whether those in Athens charged with gearing up the Olympics operation will be able to sustain a healthy, stronger pace of progress on their own, without the IOC breathing down their necks. And in a way, it is a test of independence, to see whether, or at least in what areas, the Athens preparations are self-sustaining and self-generating, able to maintain their own momentum, and not, as appeared to be the case earlier in the year, making progress only when the Coordination Commission was due to appear. This seemed at times tantamount to playing cat and mouse, and that appearance was not doing anyone any favors. Seeing and hearing progress The busy first day of the commission’s visit offered (for non-planners) briefings on two important issues, transportation and media, along with a couple of special events. Among the latter was an athletes’ panel discussion which included a beach volleyball player (Vasso Karantasiou), a cyclist (Dimitris Georgalis), a hurdler (Pericles Iakovakis), a gymnast (Vlassis Maras), two sailors (Sofia Bekatorou and Emilia Tsoulfa), and a fashionably late, or perhaps just late, star windsurfer, 1996 gold medalist Nikos Kaklamanakis. All spoke briefly on the challenges facing Greek athletes for 2004, touching not just on the thrills and challenges of competing per se, but also on the pros and cons – and there are plenty of the latter, especially psychological in nature – of competing in an Athens Olympics. The decision to give Athens the Games may or may not have transformed their lives, as some came close to suggesting, but competing here definitely will be a factor, for good or ill. Such panels rarely bring grand revelations, but little ones do creep in. In this case, much was said about the differences for an athlete between competing in the water and in a stadium full of cheering spectators, about the differences between knowing the home conditions well (especially for the sailors) and those without any home field advantage and having to train abroad (the cyclist) due to a lack of home facilities, and the similarities that all face in keeping focused on the event amid all the hoopla of an Olympics right at home. Maras, the youngest (at just 18) and recently crowned world champion on the single bar and among the more thoughtful speakers, stressed the absolute necessity of offering top-level facilities – and, by implication, the risks to athletes’ concentration and performance when facilities are below standard. The afternoon brought an excursion to the Olympic Village, a long and construction-strewn drive from the center and a longer such drive getting back. It is, or will be, located near Acharnes, out near Mt. Parnitha, of which there is a lovely unobstructed view. For all the unwelcome and unfriendly publicity about delays in getting it started (construction actually started, oddly enough, on September 10), it is the most advanced of the new construction projects thus far, which will be examined in more detail in a future column. For now, at one level (if the most obvious one) it is a typically expansive and muddy construction site, admittedly, not the best place to find yourself at midafternoon starving, thirsty, desperately tired and needing a loo. Yet beyond appearances there are genuine signs of progress and glimpses of vision for a temporary mini-village for over 17,000 athletes with all conceivable amenities. Very high construction standards are apparently being held to, especially given the recent earthquake with its nearby epicenter on the other side of the mountain, though it is hard to grasp the aesthetics of the place at this early point. But you can certainly look up at construction as well as down into holes, and three-four story building frames are evident, along with workers swarming like ants on the roofs. Somebody’s definitely got the whip out. This is all highly impressionistic, but there is clearly a method to it all. The ancient world will be in evidence too, in the form of uncovered parts of Hadrian’s aqueduct. So there is some progress, but still much to be done on all fronts. It’s a theme song that the IOC is likely be playing a while yet.