NEWS

Effort to reassure world continues

Poor Athens. Just when real progress on major projects was becoming evident and as the big 100-day countdown to the Olympics was getting under way, the world was rudely reminded of its own worries about the 2004 Games, and this time through no fault of the organizers or officials. So instead of finding glimmers of new hope through the dusty haze of nearly complete construction projects, or watching colored confetti floating down on the countdown parade, the old fears found new outlets at a badly inopportune time. Nothing focuses the international mind quite like a deadline, or orchestrated violence of any kind in the host city before an Olympics. Three explosions early Wednesday morning, in Kallithea, set off a tizzy in the world’s press, brought a comment by the British prime minister in his weekly Question Time in Parliament, and once again elicited reassurances on the Greek side that this had nothing to do with the Games and that everything would be fine. But as outside reactions showed, even if not linked with the Games in a direct sense, it had a great deal to do with them in an indirect or associative way. Minds everywhere are focusing on the Games now, and pretty much everything that happens in Greece, increasingly a crucible of international focus, both Games-related and magnified out of its usual proportion. So when Tony Blair says that the Games should go on, at least in «our present view,» implying unspoken doubts even in his own reassurances, you know that this is a real problem. Many officials for Olympic teams immediately said they’re reviewing their plans (yet again). The International Olympic Committee’s response was tight-lipped, as the IOC is due to arrive for its last big pre-Games inspection visit on Monday. But coming a few weeks after its taking out, for the first time ever, a cancellation insurance policy for a Games, and against the backdrop of a race to meet final deadlines, no one there can have been amused at the latest development, even if nobody was hurt and if the explosions were merely local and «symbolic.» How people react is critical, and you know that any such incidents will lead some individuals to cancel their trips, perhaps even athletes. Gratifyingly, no team has said it was pulling out, but there was still a big gap between the alarm expressed abroad and the phlegmatic response of Greek officials saying: «Don’t worry, it’s unrelated.» Such a perception gap has to be addressed actively, especially now that teams are finalizing travel plans and rosters. Perceptions do reinforce realities, yet on Olympics security, the more people worry beforehand, the safer the Games will very likely be. But it’s a hard road to get there. 3 months and counting Meanwhile, this interruption comes in the midst of a continuing pitched battle against time itself. All the fixated attention on the stadium roof over the past few months – a project that the IOC has repeatedly said is not strictly necessary for the Games and which theoretically it could still cancel – has diverted attention from finalizing the inside part of the stadium, along with its environs. Nobody will be strolling along the soaring arches above, but hundreds of thousands will course through the Olympic complex (OAKA) during the fortnight of the Games. With a test event scheduled for next month on the Olympic track itself (still awaiting completion), with television cabling still needing lots of work and seating still to be installed, OAKA remains an uncomfortably big concern. The main roof, like Wednesday’s incident, is wrapped in perceptions and symbolism, and its progress is seen, by many, as a metaphor for the overall state of preparations. Various dates have been given for its completion; the arches were supposed to be moved into place by April 28, then the IOC backed off on that and put end June as the final deadline – sensibly, as targeting one (major) phase of construction for deadline is somewhat artificial and smacks of micro-management. What counts is when it’s all done. Wind (hardly a sudden new development for Athens), problems with parts, and other elements have conspired to create problems for the roofers, precisely the kind of unexpected issues that the IOC has been so jittery about when there’s no time to lose. Trying to predict if they’ll finish is a bit like guessing who’ll win a photo finish in a race. All you can do is hope, and all they can do is rush. But safety, both for the workers and later for the spectators, is the paramount thing, and the constructors do very well to err on the side of caution, whether with moving the steel arches into place or installing the glass-like covering. After all, it’s an unprecedented project under a tight deadline. Onward, somehow Other issues also keep popping up to divert attention from the supposed core of the Games, the sports and the venues and competition schedules. Way off in Australia, a row flared because of security over the Olympic torch of all things. Early next month, the torch is to be flown there to start its international leg. Officials from Athens 2004, the Games organizers, had claimed the right to guard the torch outside Greece too but the Aussies had other ideas and a compromise was reached whereby both would have some shared responsibility, Australian regional police and Athens 2004, which organized the worldwide relay. Other concerns are known concerns, including the marathon route, where delays caused by the construction company’s going bust during the winter have been worsened by shoddy work (no wonder they went bankrupt!) that had to be replaced in Pallini. But work is very much again in evidence, and still evidently in need. This is not just a lengthy route that will be broadcast in its totality during two different marathon race days a week apart; it is also a road link to Schinias, the rowing and canoeing facility, to media villages along Attica’s east coast, and it doubles as the link to Athens’s second port of Rafina. It will have plenty of use during the Games. And the Karaiskaki Stadium involves a huge race in itself; around 70 percent complete now, it is perhaps the biggest concern in terms of readying an actual venue, and a genuine phoenix, having arisen out of nothing a year ago, as the old stadium was knocked down to make way for it. Landscaping will have to be worked around the new sites everywhere. There is actually some progress; grass laid down by the tram route in parts, trees and bushes being readied for planting. But with all the empty spaces to fill, some of this will likely be quick-fix measures. The Kifissou road project is making amazing progress in Faliron, yet it still requires some imagination to see cars streaming over the big loops out over the coastal delta. Athens struggles, Athens hopes, the world worries; the details shift but the underlying theme remains. But officials continue to insist that all will be ready, if at the last minute. Even at this stage, I would not want to contradict them. Different countdown The Guardian newspaper in Britain doesn’t take the friendliest tone toward these Games, but the other day they came up with a list of «one hundred things you never knew about Athens 2004» (referring to the Games, not the organizers). Among the tidbits are things that most people in Greece knew, some perhaps we didn’t, and a few that are hard to consider «facts.» The Olympics world is, at least, varied: the Afghan team will have a female flagbearer; many teams will be training in Cyprus; two athletes will compete even while facing unrelated legal charges; women’s freestyle wrestling will be competed for the first time in Athens; 2 million liters of water (and 750 liters of tomato sauce) will be consumed daily at the Olympic Village; priests in Athens are banned from taking holiday during the Games; a Hungarian water polo player’s father and grandfather both won Olympic gold medals in the same sport; and a 3-meter crocodile was formally evicted to make way for the sailing center at Agios Cosmos. Bet you didn’t know.