A tale of three Olympic sports venues in a crowded event schedule for 2004

One day to see three sports at three Attica locations: that was my intention, actually fulfilled, late last week. And as it was a quintessential halcyon day, which brings out even-worse-than-usual Friday afternoon traffic, just expending the effort seemed more like a three-ring circus or traveling whirlwind than any mere tour. This attempt to get the lead out and make up for lost time took me to a triad of Athenian venues: one being used for the first time (at Hellenikon, the old airport, for field hockey), another reopening tentatively after months of repair work (the Peace and Friendship Stadium in Faliron, for volleyball) and a third opening amid old and revered sporting grounds (the indoor hall at Goudi, for badminton). These are three of the key links in the «Olympic rings» of this August’s Games, yet none is at the main Olympic complex at Maroussi and all are far from the Olympic Village. This was a stiff reminder of the complexity of the enterprise, as if one was needed, and of the totally different standards required for different sports. It was also a reminder of how far we have come – but also of how far some of them still have to go in the next crucial months. The arenas were basically, if not fully, operational and still had an air of improvisation about them. All featured kilometers of fences (better not to find yourself on the wrong side), security guards much better equipped to tell you where you can’t go than where you can, a lack of signs, and in some cases, a severe dearth of greenery. All this can, should, and no doubt will change for the better. The sport itself was first class, and the athletes seemed enthusiastic. But all the extras that will make the difference between mere Games and memorable Games – pedestrian-friendly walkways, landscaping and informed human help – still need a step up. Five and one at Goudi The old royal athletic haunt at Goudi, which straddles inner and outer Athens near Katehaki and where crowded Ambelokipi runs into the northeastern suburbs, is in a nicely shaded, open setting that will host two sports. One already saw its pre-Olympics event, in December, for the five-sport pentathlon. The other was on display indoors last week, an international tournament in badminton. The aluminum-dominant arena there stands out starkly among the swaying eucalyptus trees and rambling grounds that serve as a bucolic locale for the shooting, fencing, swimming, show jumping, fencing, and running that pentathletes must (in turn) perform. The hall itself, seating just over 4,000, will have to shift, fast, not just from badminton to the pentathlon, but from shooting to fencing, the latter in a few hours’ time. It will be ready, they say, by April. You could do worse than purchase a ticket for a day of Olympic badminton. Like volleyball, many have played it, but few have watched champion athletes battering the birdie with focused ferocity. The venue has three courts laid out side by side, all attractive greens and blues and angled lighting, for the singles, doubles, and mixed doubles that make up the five events. The sport is lightning fast yet easy to follow, since even huge smashes peter out quickly. Games don’t last long, you can watch several at the same time, and the ambiance is either relaxed or tense, depending on what’s transpiring on court. It also has a nice protocol, as the 13 officials for each match are solemnly led on court a few minutes before match time, take their seats, the umpire gives brief introductions, flips a coin for positions, then says, simply, «Play!» And that they do, with as many serving strategies as there are players. The day I attended, and the event generally, was dominated by the South Koreans who, to a player, are tall, rangy, have great reflexes, and are deft with the racket. Hyo Jung Lee and Yong Hyun Kim won their mixed doubles match against a Greek pair 15-0, 15-0, in a match that lasted nine minutes; then Jun Jae Jun beat her hustling Greek opponent, Ioanna Karkantzia, 11-0, 11-1, while the mixed doubles (Munt-Robertson) British team beat their Greek opponents 15-0, 15-0. It was, to put a spin on it, a positive learning experience for the Greek hopefuls, whose federation was formed only in 1992. With over 10,000 athletes on the way, keeping the names straight will be a hard task for the organizers (and those writing about the Games) in August. Fortunately, the information system is well up and running and the results team on the ball; detailed results sheets were handed out at astonishingly quick intervals. Diamond in the rough If the shiny indoor arena at Goudi is a slightly sore thumb in serene surroundings, the outdoor field hockey arena at Hellenikon is a green emerald situated in a sea of brown dirt, with the equally new baseball stadium looming in the distance. Much will change at Hellenikon between now and August. It had better. The entrance was off a side road, which entailed walking along construction roads toward the stadium in the distance, with few signs to mar the sublime views of dirt mounds and old runways. Granted, my perspective was colored after I managed to walk the wrong way around, finding myself and the arena separated by a very tall fence. As I pondered my dilemma, a car drove up with two employee-types inside, asked what I wanted, then smugly asked: «Do you see any entrance around here?» It was not the right thing to say to someone disoriented, hot, tired, and late. My verbal response was that I didn’t see much of anything, anywhere, at least on my side of the fence. Mentally my reply was less polite. It was another disconcertingly long jaunt around the complex to the other side, but no lasting harm came of it. Field hockey may be less known than ice hockey to many, but the sport has been in the Olympics since 1908. The bigger of the two arenas (seating 6,300) is impressive, at least to the spectator (some players called the ground «spongy»). It’s shielded to the west from the merciless afternoon sun and the green pitch was an oasis in the ongoing work to transform the wasteland of the former airport. That afternoon no matches were on, just a women’s team out practicing, with a handful of lounging spectators, satisfying «clacks» coming from the pitch, and with enough distance to give that eerie sensation of seeing the ball hit the racket a split-second before you hear it. With Mount Hymettus looming in the distance, it is potentially a big, pleasant open-air locale for two team sports little known in Greece. What the area needs is a lot more work, some signs, and greenery between stadium and mountain. Only then will it attract the audiences it deserves. The volleyball competition was not exactly an international test event – it consisted of eight Greek women’s teams in a local tournament – but it did serve as a tentative reopening of the boat-shaped Peace and Friendship Stadium at Faliron after months of reconstruction. But more work is ahead there too, as it will be finished only in June. Fences and zooming traffic abound outside, while inside, the setup was provisional, with a single volleyball court on gray carpet. Other services are in the making. Spiked treat The lack of international competition was compensated for by the enthusiastic crowds on this Friday evening, with a few hundred friends and family on hand (the place seats some 14,000) to lend support. Volleyball is one of the best team sports, and many can identify with its basics. It’s another sport that promises big crowds come August. More systematic signposting is needed there too, inside as well as out. There is something disconcerting about indoor-arena corridors; if you aren’t careful, you can go around in circles. I tried cutting through a separate corridor to get outside and was (of course) stopped by a guard; apparently, my dog-tag wasn’t affixed with a magical gold sticker that separated the wheat from the chaff and allowed entrance to the VIP lounge. I never did find out where to obtain the elusive sticker, but the effort continues, and no doubt my life will be truly fulfilled when I do get one.