Unveiling of Olympic stadium improves mood before Games

The main stadium of the Athens Olympics went on display for the first time yesterday to near-unanimous praise from spectators and athletes stunned by an extraordinary turn for the better in Games preparations. After enduring months of criticism for delays in building venues and erecting a roof over the 80,000-seat stadium, Athens organizers unveiled a site still needing many finishing touches but more than able to host Greece’s athletics championships being held this week. Even a former James Bond, film star Sean Connery, was impressed and saw no need for the exploits of 007 with Greece calling in a 1-billion-dollar security effort, including NATO, to guard the Games from any international terrorism threat. Shrugging off any security worries, Connery said he would attend the August 13-29 Games. «I am sure the Games are going to be a huge success… they will be different, because Greece is different.» Although Greece may yet pay the price in inadequate testing of venues as construction reaches its climax two months before the Opening Ceremony, the sudden pickup in work in recent weeks has turned a dusty building site into a venue worthy of the homecoming of the Olympic Games. Grass has replaced gravel in the field area and bitumen has replaced dusty roads. Greece, awarded the Games in 1997, lost almost three years in preparation time because of political infighting over major contracts. «People may be surprised after all that has been written and broadcast,» Greek Olympic athletics coach Odysseas Papatollis said. «But we knew we were going to do it.» There were only a 10th of the 80,000 seats installed but they were more than enough for the sparse crowd of spectators and there is no suggestion that the remainder would not be in place in good time. There was even vindication for Athens in their stubborn determination against International Olympic Committee opposition to erect a futuristic, blue, web-like roof over the stadium. Designed by famed Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, the grandeur of the massive white steel arches alone captured the imagination of all. The two soaring arches, nearly as high as the Sydney Harbor Bridge, will hold the roof where straightforward installation of plastic-like panels is in progress. This is expected to be completed by the end of June. «When they finish (the roof), it’s going to be beautiful,» said American tourist John Kirkland from Florida. «It’s such an amazing structure.» «It is like being somewhere else, unique,» Connery said after a visit to the stadium. American tourist Anton Berendsen, also from Florida, was another who shrugged off safety worries about being in Athens for the first Summer Games since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the USA. «We’ve been riding the rails all over the city and we felt pretty safe,» Berendsen said. «There’s been a lot of concern among friends after the bombing (of an Athens police station last month) but it felt more dangerous in Paris during President Bush’s visit (last week.) It was like a war there.» Many foreign journalists who traveled to Athens expecting to be writing critical stories said they had changed their minds. «I’m calling my newspaper to say to get ready to change the headlines,» one journalist from a major British newspaper said. Australian media consultant Richard Palfreyman, in charge of media arrangements for the highly praised Sydney Games, said journalists would be better served than in 2000. «You can quote me. The arrangements are better.» «This really shows what Greece can do,» said housewife Maria Vafeidi.