Greek capital throws its first Olympic year party

Fireworks streaked over the 2,500-year-old Parthenon yesterday in New Year celebrations marking the final stage of preparations for the Athens Olympics. Thousands of Athenians of all ages crowded into a central square in front of Parliament to join the street party featuring a light show and performances from Greek and international artists, as well as a dance troupe from Italy. Acrobats on stilts and roaming brass bands added to the festive atmosphere. «In less than eight months the Olympic Games will return to Athens,» International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Jacques Rogge said in an end-of-year message. “There will be difficult days ahead… (but) the International Olympic Committee embraces the progress of Olympic preparation with its complete trust,» Rogge said. «We would like to thank the Greek people, Athens 2004 organizers, the Greek government and all those who volunteer their help.» Rogge has kept constant watch over Athens’s troubled preparations, as Greek organizers in 2003 overcame major construction and planning delays and struggled to stick to the IOC’s timetable. Next summer, Athens is set to welcome some 17,000 athletes and team representatives, 8,000 sporting officials, 3,000 judges and referees, 20,000 journalists, and more than 2 million visitors. With giant cranes against its skyline, Athens is already undergoing a major facelift, creating walkways and cleaning up downtown buildings and ancient monuments. «Athens is ready for the challenge… The city will open its arms to the world again,» a statement from the mayor’s office said. Olympic planners are also preparing to provide massive security at the August 13-29 Games, costing a record $750 billion. At the New Year celebrations, more than 500 police officers, uniformed and plain-clothes, were deployed around the central square among the thousands of revelers. Authorities plan to deploy about 50,000 security personnel including 16,000 soldiers during the Olympics. «I am optimistic about the new year in Greece. I cannot say the same for events overseas,» President Costis Stephanopoulos said. «Our country, birthplace of the Olympics, hopes to return to the true values of sport and remind the world of the original Olympic ideal. The Olympics will be good for Greece and help its future development.»

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