NEWS

Men of hidden talent on 2004 stage

Many of those responsible for the Olympics were off playing hooky this week: Some officials slipped off to Portugal for the Euro 2004 soccer championships and are basking in the Greek team’s amazing run; many others, especially from the Athens 2004 organizing committee, are chasing the Olympic Flame around the United States. Oddly enough, far fewer did the same when it passed through Korea and India. Into this temporary void stepped two non-Greeks who also play crucial roles. One was Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, and a virtual but powerful presence here the past two weeks for making a series of seemingly derogatory comments about the same Athens Olympic effort he had shortly before praised to the rafters. The other was Santiago Calatrava, the Spaniard chosen to refurbish and embellish the Olympic complex near Maroussi, who held court yesterday on his vision and the steps to realize it. Both men are scientists: Rogge a medical doctor, Calatrava an architect and engineer, thrown together by accident of Olympic sport and 2004. Each has much riding on what transpires in August, and each can help make or break the Games. They also, this week, showed other facets of their characters indicating why they have risen to the pinnacles of their profession. Rogge comments The IOC chief showed that an acerbity backs up his mild-mannered Belgian charm, necessarily so in the rough-and-tumble world of sport. He managed to spread his ire right across the seven-year spectrum from the bid in 1997 («a calculated gamble… not the easy way,» compared to Rome’s ostensibly superior bid) to extravagant Greek choices («Let no one come to us and complain that the Games have cost too much»), to a speculative aside that, after Greece’s Games, he would not consider them the best ever. This was later, unconvincingly, clarified; he’ll never compare Olympiads, he said, having just done that in dredging up a long-buried comparison of the bids by Athens and Rome. Naturally, Greek indignation shot skyward, not least for its bad timing, coming just as the renovated and newly roofed stadium was being unveiled and which changed a lot of minds about Greece’s readiness. For all the seeming swipes, however, he may have had other aims apart from targeting Athens: to warn future applicants, to ward off detractors, to defend the IOC from later backlash, and to simplify future Games. Athens 2004 chief Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki gave a brief but firm rebuke that success would be determined during and only during the Games and that Greece’s bid was best, full stop. A week (or seven years) on, Dr Rogge still has bruised local egos on his hands. But if he intended – as is possible – to provoke a little anger and stoke Greece’s Olympic fire while building a firewall for the IOC, he’s a much better sports psychologist than we give him credit for – even if less diplomatic than his unflappable exterior suggests. Into mid-June’s stagnant air and recirculating arguments blew the fresh ideas and bold presence of Santiago Calatrava this week. The architect, renowned for his bold but functional designs, was given carte blanche three years ago to overhaul the Olympic complex. If Dr Rogge bared his teeth and kicked up dust for effect, then Calatrava has demonstrated remarkable skill and patience as a conjurer while his grand plan was translating into a thrilling reality. Calatrava has swept across the Greek scene like a comet since he arrived with a model that bowled over then Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos on sight, and got him his commission without a fight. He seems right at home in Greece, an eastern Mediterranean bookend to Spain’s western end. With his heart-on-sleeve approach to life, his love of beauty, his belief in the Olympic spirit, and even his defiant yet constrained megalomania, it’s easy to see how he fits into the 2004 effort. Santiago Houdini This conjurer certainly can play the crowd. He has kept Athenians on the edge of their seats as his magic show unfolded these past two years. Waving his wand, he swept all would-be competitors before him; staged a lengthy and mysterious disappearing act as the project languished in subcontractural oblivion; emerged from a trapdoor in late 2003 for a sudden reappearance to prove it was still his show; survived IOC attempts to saw him, or his project, in half right on stage; performed a fancy warmup trick in arranging the sliding of the velodrome roof; survived a high-wire act, buffeted by winds, as the roof’s viability was doubtful until last month; pulled a rabbit out of his hat in arranging for the sliding of the arches just days before a crucial test event last week; unveiled his great work with a grand flourish; and now makes a jolly reappearance on stage, hardly a hair out of place, to explain how he pulled off his magic tricks. It was some show, with genuine results spanning 300 meters and involving 18,000 tons of suspended steel and polycarbonate paneling. His pride in its (near) completion was on full display for a project that was much more in jeopardy that he let on, even saying he «never had a doubt» it would be completed. Insisting that his vision reflected more prudence than audacity, he proceeded to detail why it was so striking and «an extremely high achievement.» Two impetuses ruled: One aim was to maximize the «generosity» of open spaces, seen in his overall treatment of the complex and drawing on classical references; the other was to embody the athletic spirit of competition in which the horizontal spans of the two roofs, seemingly «floating over the sea,» embody an «image of lightness.» Beauty was to combine with high technology to create an unusual and inspiring effect. Given all the damaging speculation of recent months, it was refreshing to hear plenty of factual solidity behind the grand words. For example, the oft-blamed high winds really were responsible for over two weeks’ worth of delays. The stadium has four new supporting towers, which will disappear after the Games. Over 70 percent of the work on the huge metal tubular structures was completed before the sliding took place. The sliding process itself, which captured so many imaginations, was not that technically challenging. His worries were elsewhere. And the velodrome, the «little child» of the complex, had its 150-meter, 5,000-ton roof in place almost a month ahead of schedule – a pretty authoritative rejoinder to all the naysayers. The conjurer still has some tricks to unveil. In the main stadium, once the roof panels are in place, their covering or «skin» will be stripped away, revealing the bright «Greek blue» panels that will catch the light and be visible to half of Athens, especially at night. And for an encore The rest of the complex has surprises in store too. Much revolves around the «ceremonial axis» connecting the two big venues, which takes in the broad agora, or central space, with its reflecting pools, entrances and exits, shop areas, and Gothic-like parabolic arch designed to provide a play of light and shade. Even more tantalizing is his «Wall of Nations,» a tall metal (and apparently moving) structure on which images will be screened. And the ace up his sleeve is, believe it or not, ambitious landscaping in place of the present dust bowl, with over 2,000 transplanted trees and 100,000 bushes as «the last job to do.» These will also (he says) help screen the velodrome from its wind problems plaguing the recent test event while serving future generations. He is one convincing man, and he praised to the heavens the «unbelievable effort» by the two companies, Metka and Cipola, the quality of construction, and the speedy delivery. With «very deep gratitude toward Greece,» his inspired project is on its way to completion. And stealing a page from Dr Rogge’s misplaced book of diplomacy, he was gracious to a fault, declining only to answer questions about the costs, and breathing not a word about the terrible anxiety he surely felt while his signature project, and reputation, were on the line due to factors and people beyond his control. Few could claim with such conviction that Greece is one of the few countries that could get it all done.