‘Roof effect’ kicks in and kick starts Athens’s Olympics preparations, to IOC satisfaction

An almost audible collective sigh of relief was heard this week as the Olympics preparations passed a critical hurdle as they hurtle toward their rendezvous with August 2004. With a rhetorical flourish about winning Greece’s «first bet» and tossing a dubiously aimed bottle of white wine that conjured up images of the British queen commissioning a battleship, Greece’s Alternate Culture Minister Fanni Palli-Petralia did her gamest to launch the sliding of the roof on Monday. That process was witnessed by the Olympics hierarchy this week, led by chief inspector Denis Oswald, and put them in a great frame of mind. Is the «roof effect» 2004’s answer to the old domino theory? Then the huge white steel arches started creaking and groaning along the specially built track, like a museum moving a prized, oversized but fragile brontosaurus or mastodon skeleton to the other side of the building. The «western» arch, with lots of blue polycarbonate panels already attached to its lower reaches, slid 70 meters, turtle-like, in two days; the other, eastern arch will slide around 60 meters in the opposite direction, perhaps next week. It came not a minute too soon, with the International Olympic Committee continually on Greece’s case about the project against a threat of cancellation. This possibility grew during howling gales all last week; finally, the weather gods relented. Remarkably, the breakthrough came just as the IOC was back in town. Had the IOC stiffened its resolve and called the whole project off – or rather, frozen it until after the Games – it would have been a devastating psychological blow to the Games, to Greece, and to the organizers. And it was clear from the visit-ending press conference on Wednesday that the IOC’s reassurance spilled over into its broader assessment, which was almost uniformly positive on the construction side, even while equally tricky operational preparations were (belatedly) getting under way. Greece in miniature What’s in a roof? Some have even tried to equate it with Classical Age architecture, as a sort of modern Parthenon. I’m not sure about the parallel – let’s revisit the issue in a few hundred years – but clearly the roof has taken on huge, mythical proportions that far outweigh even its (great) visual significance for the Athens skyline, or its utility for the Games in allowing the spectators a shadier, more intimate association with the sports and athletes while giving TV viewers some spectacular overhead shots. Beyond all this, the roof neatly encapsulates much of Greece itself. The project is 2004’s version of the first marathon race, the signature element of the first Games in 1896. That, too, was conceived by a foreigner (classicist Michel Breal, who proposed the race to a receptive Pierre de Coubertin) as a never-before-tried, symbolic addition to Greece’s Olympics. The host Greeks seized on the race idea as a point of pride. And success came, to local winner Spyros Louis (after whom today’s main Olympic stadium, as well as the street in front of it, was named), leading to some giddy national pride. The soaring Calatrava structure captures some similar elements. Though conceived outside Greece, it was adopted, closely associated with the country and its Olympics, and assimilated into the whole effort. It is grand, even outsized; the two arches rise up to 80 meters above the ground, and each spans over 300 meters – about the length of three football fields, or one Queen Mary cruise liner – and weighs around 17,000 tons (look out below). From time to time, Greece has produced outsized national projects, some of them gloriously realized (getting into the European Community and later the eurozone), others turning to ash (the Asia Minor campaign). Remember the myth of Icarus? He flew too close to the sun, then crashed to earth. But at the same time, he did fly. That roof is trying to fly too, and the flapping beast is carrying the burden of Greece’s expectations into still-shaky flight. Some carp over the cost, but most Greeks must surely gaze at it with amazement and pride, not quite believing that such a project could be realized by modern Athenians. A lot of national hopes and fears have been focused on those steel arches. Another very Greek angle is the roof’s great capacity for distracting attention from other real issues – what Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, Athens 2004 chief, said caused people to look toward the heavens while missing the ground-level concerns. There’s a heavily romantic side to it, both in its conception and in the challenge that it embodies. It was taken on in a flurry of post-2000 optimism about the Games; there wasn’t even a tender competition for it. It involves a huge wager (gambling being a frequent pastime here) that could still go astray. Chances are that it won’t, but you’re never quite sure. The potential taste of triumph outweighs the possible lament of failure. It also represents a stubborn defiance of the odds (costs, deadlines, wind) and the naysayers (skeptical journalists, the IOC), even a slight flirtation with disaster that also rings familiar bells in Greece. It’s an intriguing subplot in the already complicated Olympic Games story that rivals the complexity of an ancient Greek tragedy. Even the physical aspect of the roof, the two soaring arches side by side, seems to mirror those double-faced masks that you can buy in tourist shops, signaling the comic and the tragic. What’s in a steel and (artificial) glass roof? A whole lot, it turns out. Complex complex Down here on mundane ground, the rest of the OAKA complex is a beehive of activity, but even in the hundreds of workers and dozens of tractors, trailers, plows, cranes, supports, heavy vehicles and structures around, it is still frankly hard to envision a functioning Olympic center in just three months. A team of archaeologists is even excavating right in front of it all. Viewing the scene from outside the fence (I missed the bus, literally, on Monday, my only chance to get inside, for which I blame everybody but myself), it’s little wonder that foreign journalists fly in here and predict disaster. Not knowing the country, and the typically feverish pace of last-minute work here, I’d think the same. But if I were to place a wager on the one country that could go from this unkempt point to a stage of just-in-time completion, it would be Greece. There are glimpses of readiness; behind the high stands of the outdoor swimming pool lies the impressive cycling velodrome, lurking like a giant white grasshopper resting on its haunches, now proudly sporting the «lesser» Calatrava roof. It will be worth the price of a Games ticket just to wander through the area whenever it’s whipped into Olympics shape. It is hard to believe, but the regular visits by the IOC Coordination Commission are no more. This week saw the 12th and last, with their whirlwind tours, closed-door meetings, press conferences and quick getaways. This is not to say the IOC won’t be breathing down Athens’s neck every day till the Games are over, with frequent technical crews here. The IOC’s executive board meets next week, and you can bet they won’t be sketching out plans for the 2010 Winter Games in Canada. On-time optimist Finally, Tuesday brought a rare appearance by Dimitris Papaioannou, taking a break from his 14-hour days as «concept creator» for the opening and closing ceremonies. Starting from a basic team of 12 artists, this bundle of energy now directs some 250 artistic and production people (and 4,000 volunteers), aiming at an opening ceremony emphasizing harmony and measurement. It’s all sworn to secrecy, but glimpses emerged: of using history as an allegory, molded to a modern production; extras in sandals and white gowns won’t be on show. His job – to combine Greece’s music, movement and visual artistry into a single 90-minute world show – is enough to floor anybody. He’s aiming at the emotions more than the intellect, and he, too, was happy to see the stadium roof on the move.

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