It’s not yet spring; far from it. We haven’t even reached Groundhog Day yet (that’s on Sunday), which, at least in the US, is the day when a furry little animal pokes his head out of a hole for a furtive look around. If he sees his shadow, then six more weeks of cold winter are sure to follow. With clouds and no shadow, an early spring is on the way. Yet at Athens 2004, the Olympics headquarters, spring is almost foreseeable as new plantings are under way in the front yard of the hilltop headquarters, which was for too long a muddy slope. The makeover includes little olive shoots and rows upon rows of (I think) rose bushes. They’re more thorny than in bloom at the moment, but promise a feast of color come spring. An example for the rest of Athens, perhaps? Going underground All this activity is an earthy shorthand for ATHOC’s present task of laboring furiously but, as a change, underground and out of sight. For once, the preparations are being overshadowed by politics and the election campaign, which has itself been all but drowned out by the «Pachtas affair» involving unsavory maneuvers in Parliament over a surreptitious land development deal. These days, even the scandals are literally about dirt. And this is just as well for the organizers; it can’t be easy to toil ceaselessly in the spotlight, and Greece will have quite enough time later to focus on the final runup. The ATHOC head, Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, of course, deftly wears both hats as a political, not just organizational, figure. But the preparations hit full stride, or «cruising speed» to use Denis Oswald’s term, a while back, and are in some ways almost self-sustaining. Even the elections won’t put much of a dent into the efforts. Polls or no polls, it’s now a race to the finish, with the racecourse all laid out. From now until mid-March, the Olympics will be on the back burner of public consciousness. The really crucial period will be from the torch-lighting ceremony on March 25 till early June, when the torch departs for its international leg. Those six weeks or so will be make-or-break time. April, and especially May, is when the venues and transport projects will have to be completed and handed over for «overlaying,» the finishing touches. If some still aren’t ready by June, THEN we’ll be in serious trouble. But that’s far from inevitable, as everyone involved knows perfectly well what’s at stake. Sport on tap Another sign that the Games are on their way is the chock-a-block calendar of sports events going on even now. Some 40 events were scheduled, starting in summer 2002 with the Athens Regatta. Just in the past two weeks, events in judo and wrestling were held at the brand-new, impressive, hard-to-find and (temporarily) snowed-in arena at Ano Liosia. A third sport, table tennis, is under way right now at the equally new Galatsi hall that was mired in controversy even while it was still on paper. This is no local get-together: The table-tennis event involves 239 players from 38 countries – about as many athletes as the entire 1896 Olympic Games in Athens. And yesterday, parathletes made their Athens debut with bocci, a ball game not in the main Games. February is equally full. Hockey comes to Hellenikon next week, along with badminton at the indoor arena at Goudi. A third sport, volleyball, overlaps with both, and will inaugurate the revamped Peace and Friendship Stadium at Faliron, making February 6-8 the busiest period this winter for pre-Olympic sport – with three different sports going on simultaneously at three different venues. This is full-team, set-up-and-spike volleyball, not the barefoot-and-sandy-beach, two-on-two volleyball on tap last summer. Even diving comes to wintry Athens on February 18 with a competition at the indoor poll at the main Olympic center at Kalogreza. All this offers a first-rate chance for anyone interested to get free tickets for a sneak preview of the creme de la creme of Greek athletics, have a taste of the quality of international competition coming next summer, and see where their taxpayer euros are going. You can’t really get a sense of what the Olympics are all about without taking in some of the sports at the nearly done venues. There, the focus falls on the athletes, not the construction cranes, as an atmosphere of serious sport takes over. Being there, you realize again why minor sports have some of the most spirited followings and dedicated athletes, and get a small glimpse of why the Olympics are unique. Make the effort and you’ll start to understand. So far, too few people have. The new arenas are smaller than they could have been, a prudent decision which few realize cost ATHOC tens of millions of euros in potential income, since the organizers are heavily dependent on ticket sales for their strictly limited budget. Long road traveled Seeing the venues also makes one realize the huge steps that have been taken since the early lost years. ATHOC bore much of the blame for doing little from 1997 until 2000, but the government was also responsible, obsessed at the time with its drive to join the eurozone. Nor does the International Olympic Committee get away scot-free either. In the late Samaranch era, it was looking the other way as Athens dithered. In its own way, this was understandable; the IOC was then engulfed in its worst ever ethics scandal, uncomfortably echoed just this week with the arrest in South Korea of an IOC vice president on embezzlement charges. Even after spring 2000, when full executive power at ATHOC passed back to Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, who had championed the bid effort only to depart the scene (on her own terms and not booted out, as many believe), it was a scramble just to build a reasonable base from what she recently called «the crazy period» up until 2001. Full marks are due to the organization for catching up at all, much less for being in a position (against a remorseless deadline) to potentially deliver a first-class Games. Things can and will go wrong; they always do. We may still fear, but no longer expect, the worst from the Athens Games. And we’ve only just begun. ATHOC now employs about 2,400 people – often criticized for sponging, but who work appalling hours and are guaranteed to lose their jobs in eight months’ time – which will rise to 6,500 by Games time. Then it will downsize and tally up the results and account for its expenditures. And ATHOC is just the nerve center – micro-managers of a bigger picture. The Games are about Greece and Greeks, and will be judged as such by outsiders who have never heard of ATHOC and see only Athens and Greece and the overall impression. The Games are Greece’s biggest ever peacetime undertaking, and their enormity will soon be apparent. What the country gets out of its year in the spotlight will be what it puts into it. ATHOC, like the tender shoots on its front lawn, is quietly sowing now in order to reap later on. Conveniently, this is being overshadowed by the entertaining political show hogging center stage – now including spray-painted security cameras by an irate local mayor defending his local turf and honor. Only in Greece.