NEWS

Fast and furious goes the pace for Athens’s Olympic preparations — virtual and real

“The IOC came to town, and all I got was this lousy T-shirt» might summarize, in adolescent fashion, my feelings at the moment, bogged down with work and unable even to get out and see what they were doing. I did, however, end up with the consolation prize of a press release in my box even if not a shirt in the closet. There’s a lot more than just a press release to digest. Say what you will about the Athens Olympics preparations; the organizing committee, the IOC and increasingly the mayor’s office are all busy flooding the city’s wiring systems with information, much of it helpful, about every conceivable element of the Games. A 24-page fact sheet, pages more of sponsor news, transportation and parking plans, detailed competition schedules (be sure not to miss boxing’s welterweight award ceremony at 3.39 p.m. on August 29 at Peristeri Hall), press releases on upcoming sports events, and much more all arrived in one day recently. Even when you feel out of the loop you’re inundated. For those actively seeking information, a trip to the Games website (www.athens2004.com) will yield undoubtedly the most informative, friendliest, and most entertaining Internet visit in Greece; no kidding. So, read all about it; just be sure not to miss the Games themselves in all the virtual excitement. This could be an information offensive to counter all the bad stories unfortunately making the rounds about delays, cost rises and potential security holes. Whatever the reason, Athens will resemble an ant farm from now till fall. Visitors everywhere This week brought a wave of important visitors from outside, including Dick Ebersol, the head of sports at the US rights-holding broadcaster, NBC, a major source of funding for the Athens 2004 organizers; David Stern, the commissioner of the National Basketball Association (in the middle of the playoff season at that), with several European NBA stars in tow full of promises for a great Olympic competition; a delegation from the International Paralympic Committee to discuss those Games starting in mid-September; and 16 people from the International Olympic Committee, headed up by Denis Oswald, were here for three days of inspections. The IOC crew was inspecting venues, of course, but also things like medical services and city operations. Mr Oswald said that «there’s still enough time» to do all that needs doing for the core services of the Games, even if not the extraneous elements dear to some, and he praised the «huge amount of work that has already been carried out» in preparation for August. Venues are still a concern, although 15 are completely ready they say, including the three big outdoor venues at Hellenikon, for baseball, softball, and hockey. The other 25 are getting there, the laggard being Karaiskaki Stadium for soccer/football (including the women’s final) in Neo Faliron, although the pace at that arena is genuinely staggering: A leveled field not many months ago, now it’s 30 percent from being a full-fledged stadium. Six of the 40 total are «media villages.» None are ready yet, but considering the negative foreign press recently, perhaps few in Greece will lament a few foreign journalists having to rough it on dirt floors. The main venue, the stadium, will be a concern until the Games, not just for the roofing job still very much under way but for the cabling and other work vital for anybody who wants to watch the Games on television (basically the whole world). Cabling delays were a serious and stated concern during Oswald’s last visit three weeks ago, but these have since been speeded up. It is hard to see how much can be «speeded up» at all, as Alternate Culture Minister Fanni Palli-Petralia said that all sites are working «triple shifts,» in other words, around the clock. The roof, all 18,000 tons of it, will face its own test event shortly, as the two huge steel arches will be slid into place from their current positions, 60-70 meters away – though slowly, at just 5.70 meters an hour. Early May seems to be the target date for this, with any luck by the time the entire IOC Coordination Commission arrives on May 10 for another visit. The whole (roofing) thing must be completed by the end of June. All that steel in the roof is not just to hold up glass paneling; it will also be used to collect rainwater, which will in turn generate man-made waterfalls, lending a nice touch (especially in hot August) right next to the stadium. Who says these Games will lack imagination? A new city The city of Athens, once off the map in terms of Olympic preparations, is roaring along under Mayor Dora Bakoyannis with various plans for cleaning up and keeping order, two perennial challenges now being taken up with a vengeance because of the Games. Plans for Lycabettus Hill’s renovation were unveiled earlier. A new action plan for the city includes more personnel (cleaners, policemen) and equipment (garbage trucks, street cleaners), fines for littering, a helpline (195) for cleanliness questions, and even noise patrols. It also includes five cranes to remove abandoned vehicles. Car-removal crews are already out in force, believe me. The aim is to change the quality of life and attitudes, an admirable, if tall, order. Do you think we’ll turn into a German city – spiffy clean, and dead by 9 p.m.? Not very likely. Let’s hope it is not all for naught. Also reported this week was an IOC effort to close a large deal on Olympic cancellation insurance. If the Games are called off for any reason, like earthquake or terrorism, the organization stands to lose royally, as all broadcast deals and advertising will fall apart. It needs to protect itself financially to keep operating for another four years if necessary ($200 million being the minimum needed). Such prudence at this late stage looks a bit like stage fright, even though the organization insists that the effort has been planned for some time. Management of risk is big business nowadays, and the Olympics are definitely that. Another story Roofs, cabling, tram works – they’re all important, but are all eclipsed this week by one story in far-away South Africa. Natalie du Toit is a distance (800m) freestyle swimmer determined to make her national team for the Olympics. She has not yet reached the international qualifying time, but hopes to soon. Not so unusual, except for the fact that she has but one leg, having lost the other after a motorscooter accident three years ago. Eschewing the Paralympics (which have plenty of competition in their own right), she wants to make the «real» team, and conceivably still could; she qualified for the final of the 800m at the Commonwealth Games in 2002. She has dreamed of competing in an Olympics all her life, and still does. That’s dedication.