Preparing for the worst, hoping for the best; that pretty much sums up the prevailing feeling before a subgroup of the IOC’s Coordination Commission arrived in town late last week for its regular inspection tour of the Athens 2004 Games preparations. Yet when all was said and done, the assessments suddenly seemed almost rosy. Did Thanksgiving in Athens give genuine cause for thanks, or are the positive words mere soothing tonic? Have the Athens 2004 preparations finally turned the corner from troubled to focused? Is the worst now behind us, after two days of meetings and a press conference? Ch-ch-changes Turning points, pivotal junctures, cusps, watersheds; however labeled, they are interesting events. At one level, they are a bit like forks in the road; the rider reaches a certain point where he can take one of two alternatives. But that is a matter of present and conscious choice, which is not the only consideration. Another important one is timing. Turning points are, in fact, almost impossible to see at the time; they are only visible in retrospect. That’s a roundabout way of saying that we can’t truly know yet whether Athens has turned a corner, much less the corner, in its Olympics preparations. Another problem with making any such determination is that the whole process is a long row to hoe. The Coordination Commission comes four times a year, and there are still almost three years left. Their assessment will differ somewhat each time they come. The past 18 months has seen a substantial range of IOC responses: Last year a sharp rebuke by Juan-Antonio Samaranch was followed by soothing words from the outgoing IOC president, who no doubt did not want to go out in curmudgeonly fashion. His successor from July 2001, Jacques Rogge, began on a very positive note, but by September he appeared more critical, as did his replacement as Coordination Commission president, Denis Oswald. This time, less than two months later, Mr Oswald sounded (at least in terms of the generously provided sound bites) markedly more upbeat. More than one Greek observer was heard to suggest that the IOC risks its own credibility by responding inconsistently, especially if they turn tougher again in the New Year. These are, at most, midterm assessments. But unlike a midterm exam, it doesn’t count toward the final grade. One visit means little in the grand scheme of things, and gives only a general indicator of the current state of play. In August 2004, nobody will remember (or even care about) what was said in November 2001 concerning the preparations; Oswald likened the preparations to a puzzle, in which you don’t know how the picture looks until all the pieces are in place. And that they won’t be until the beginning of 2004, when all the venues must be handed over, ready for use. Pret-a-porter. But that’s then. Furthermore, it is a mistake to think that the only assessment that counts is that of the IOC. Greece is not just a dutiful student but the Games’ host and paymaster, and the ultimate judgment will have to come from its own people as to whether the effort was worth the bother, the time, and the huge expenses that are being racked up; and for that they need accurate information. For its part, the IOC wants only to see that Athens hosts a successful Games. They are not concerned with the costs or the aftermath for the city. This is not to call them callous; indeed by all indications they, or at least their visible leadership, are in this enterprise for the love of sport and of the Olympics. It is just that they do their jobs, the government does its, and so does ATHOC, and it won’t work unless all work together to produce a collective effort. Read the fine print Let’s look a little more closely at what the commission actually said. The headlines focused on the positive surprise by Oswald and Co., and earlier this week, on Rogge’s absolute confidence in Athens staging a successful Games, which many took as a vote of confidence in the overall operation. Yet it would surely be overstating things to call them happy; much happier than before, when they were clearly unhappy comes closer to the truth. He (Oswald) was impressed by his (Prime Minister Simitis’s) knowledge of the problems (meaning it was good that those at the top realize, finally, what a massive challenge they’re facing). He also said that it was too early to say that Athens has won, in his memorable phrase, the race against the watch (meaning that it may already be too late to complete and test some venues as needed, a full year ahead of time); and that his commission had come to Athens not to praise Caesar, but to discuss in detail not one or two but five major areas of important concern which need urgent attention. As these crucial problem-areas include transport, accommodation, construction, the Olympic Village, and venue operations – in other words, most things that matter — the IOC’s wall of worry clearly still extends far and wide. Pointing that out diplomatically is not the same as cheerleading from the IOC. Oswald also asserted that there was a huge amount of work still to be done, and that, although the pace of progress has been stepped up to a more satisfactory level, accumulated delays and three years of dithering still weigh heavily. And the commission continues to insist on being given viable alternative plans for every canceled project – a point they wouldn’t bother making unless they thought that some projects might still be canceled. Not home yet To use another economic parallel, it is like the difference between a governmental deficit and a public debt; the (Greek) government may have eliminated deficit spending and the 2002 budget may show a surplus, but that does little to cut down the public debt accumulated over decades of spending (which is nearly equivalent to Greece’s GDP – its total economic output for a full year). In addition to all this, Oswald politely sidestepped all questions about internal politics in Greece, which continue to simmer as issues and seemed to touch a raw nerve at the press conference. And as ATHOC President Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, who remains concerned and anxious about venue progress, insisted, the last minute is right now. That’s not exactly an admonition for everyone to take an extended holiday. Athens may well have turned the corner with this last visit, but it helps to remember that an oval track has four turns, not just one. Whatever the case, Greece is now in the thick of things, and so is the IOC; it’s too late to change horses, but still much too early to know if the race will unfold according to the official odds. There is plenty of time for things to go wrong – but also for them to go right. At least after last week, we are more aware of the latter possibility, and that surprises don’t necessarily have to be of the rude variety.