Greece works for 2004 Games while the world watches, waits, and worries

In a week when an Olympics test event in weightlifting (with another, for the pentathlon, coming up) competed vainly for attention with the end of a terrorism trial and with international drugs issues outdueling Greece’s domestic preparations, the Olympics world remains both complicated and tense even here at jolly old Christmastime. We are clearly in for a difficult six or eight months, with much of the frantic final preparations taking place during the rainy season, which will make the ongoing transport delays and disruptions even more exasperating than usual. But when all is said and done, Athens will be a somewhat nicer and less congested place, most Athenians will be a little more proud of their city, and, come next summer, most will probably be astonished at what Greece was capable of producing. Believing this, even now, is admittedly difficult; it sometimes requires the faith of the Magi following the star over Bethlehem. But at least now the task ahead is more or less clear. Major changes are rather unlikely from now on; adjustments and lots of overtime work are the operative words. In fact, the main recent fears – of unfinished projects like the «Calatrava roof» over the Olympic stadium, the tram, and the suburban railway – have been allayed, at least to hear the overseers from the International Olympic Committee tell it. Over the past month, attention has been riveted on a pair of old bugbears, drugs and security fears, which have the fearsome ability to disrupt, or at least discolor, the Games however vigilant the organizers or the government may be. The biggest risks to the Games may now be from outside. This may vindicate Greece’s sometimes underappreciated efforts, but doesn’t help us rest any easier. New developments… Yet even in these heavy times, there are some uplifting developments. It now seems certain, barring some extreme obstinacy by Greece’s archaeological council, that Ancient Olympia will host a genuine Olympic event for the first time in some 1,600 years. The shot put (which was not competed there in antiquity) will be moved to the ancient site and its date on the crowded Games calendar has been shifted to August 18 for both preliminary rounds and finals, and for both men and women (32 athletes each). This will be the first time, ever, that women will compete officially in an event in the old and unadorned stadium there. And it’ll be viewable for free. However, there are limitations due to security and archaeology. Only 15,000 spectators will be able to watch, a few thousand tickets going to international sports federations and most of the rest for locals. No electronic screens will be installed, even temporarily, so the return to nature will make the competition hard to follow for those sitting on the nearby grassy slopes. But it’s just the sort of imaginative idea that will make the 2004 Games genuinely special (and less obviously «Athenian»). Slightly less inspired is a TV documentary to be aired before the Games that will follow teams of athletes preparing and competing at Olympia in an approximation of what transpired two millennia ago. «The Champions of Olympia» is a European (Franco-German) production, and some but not all ancient sports will be revived. Let’s hope that good taste will prevail. Even the long-absent Santiago Calatrava put in a rare appearance in Athens last week and gave his personal reassurance that his famous glass-and-metal roof will be in place in time for the Games. The roof, designed as the signature architectural landmark of the 2004 events, has long appeared in dire danger of being scrapped, but recent progress has diminished those fears. What does remain a big concern is the grand plan for landscaping the whole Olympics complex, which must somehow be converted from the current construction mudhole to grassy slopes and canopied walkways by next summer. … and old nemeses Drugs and security matters – worries for every Olympic Games – are once again making news and animating the Games preparations. A war of words has been unleashed over doping in the US, especially the role played by the international track and field federation (IAAF), with the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) trying to get a grip on a spiraling problem. C.J. Hunter, a retired world champion shot putter (and repeated drugs test-flunker) and the former husband of Marion Jones, the greatest sprinter of the past decade of either sex, alleged a doping cover-up involving not just US track officials but the world federation. Hunter claimed that the IAAF offered him a surreptitious quid pro quo to cover up a positive drug test if he withdrew from the Sydney Olympic Games citing injury. All this, on the heels of the THG «designer drug» scandal, has raised the profile of WADA, set up in 1999 by the International Olympic Committee and run by longtime Olympic official Dick Pound. Pound and IOC head Jacques Rogge are proposing tough penalties for countries that don’t pay their WADA dues (it has a $20 million budget and can’t do much without it), and even want to change the Olympic Charter to say that countries that won’t divvy up will be banned from hosting future Games. There is evident anger in such a move. Policing methods for drug use are apparently improving: An investigation led to a specific lab in California’s Bay Area that produced THG, and within a year, has been able to identify champion athletes like Dwain Chambers as taking it. In response, the US athletics association has gone from lenient to draconian, proposing lifetime bans even for first-time abusers (though the IOC believes this is artificially extreme). The IOC is even proposing a network of undercover informants in order to «out» illicit producers and takers of substances. Dr Jacques Rogge, IOC president, said memorably that there are 850 million people playing sports around the world, but not 850 million saints. In this case, however, the saints will also be the informants. Such is life in the 21st century Olympics. At Athens next summer, there will be 25 percent more drug tests than at Sydney in 2000, and, in fact, the IOC will be able to test all athletes, worldwide, from the time the Olympic Village opens on July 30. Almost 3,000 tests will be made in pre- or post-competition conditions, about one for every three athletes. The other issue, security, never drops off the radar screen. It certainly didn’t this week with the conviction of 15 members of the November 17 group, which some believe has freed Greece from this old scourge. Even so, others continue to publicly question Greece’s efforts, which are increasingly cooperative internationally. One of the more memorable comments from an unattributed «expert» was effectively that if Athens were to hold the Games tomorrow, Greek security would not be ready. This is like saying if Christmas were held tomorrow, nobody would be ready either. It is a true but meaningless statement. Many things fell behind long ago, and everyone knows it’s a struggle to catch up. But catch up they probably will. There is too much pressure not to. At any rate, it is the international dimension of the terrorism problem that has most experts animated, and perhaps makes outsiders a bit more tolerant of Greece’s exceptionally difficult situation in struggling to ensure a safe Games. A group of US congressmen even wrote in to congratulate Athens’s efforts to that end – a welcome bit of respite and encouragement for the ever-disparaged Greek security effort.