A month before the Games close

You know how imminent the Olympics are when you realize not only that they open two weeks from today, but also that, in one month, on August 29, they’ll be done with and we’ll all be done for. The coming month may be the most intense the city has ever seen in peacetime, but it’s also likely to pass by in a blur of images. We would all be well advised to sit back from time to time and get a little perspective on all the frenzy while experiencing something that, like it or not, will most surely never come our way again. Unsung summer The pace of project completion and turnover is almost breathtaking. The past week alone has brought the official handover of the marathon race route; installation of an immensely complicated region-wide security system; the opening of two different metro stations and, as of today, a rail link to the airport; yet more roads newly paved and official Olympic lanes marked off; a Games media center at Zappeion Hall inaugurated; and the information system for the Games (INFO 2004) cranked up; thousands of colorful banners hoisted up flagpoles and plastered on buildings; reception tents popping up; Olympic medals stamped; and the Olympic Village inaugurated with athletes moving in. There’s a cop patrolling every corner and a fresh flowerbed gracing every statue. And in one of the bigger miracles in a summer of surprises, real trees have actually appeared in the sun-baked, concrete expanse of Omonia Square. They said it couldn’t be done, but it has. Yet the high-flying projects at home have also managed to land under the international radar. The prevailing view cultivated in the world’s media has tended to be that the Games were likely to flop because of all the problems beforehand. In other words, the delays and issues up to now created a relentless logic whereby negative expectations would force the reality. That, of course, would also give many the chance to say «I told you so» if anything goes seriously wrong – as if anybody would care what they had said by that point – while conveniently lowering the threshold of presumed failure. What the past months have in fact shown – and what those who really know Athens and Greece, as opposed to those who have arrived for brief Olympic stints, will realize – is that, considering the difficult everyday realities of living here, just getting to this point, completing all the venues and transport links while coping with unprecedented security demands and outside carping on this country of limited resources and choking bureaucracy, already amounts to an astonishing feat. Greece has already way surpassed itself in getting this far, and this week’s unveiling of the capital’s first-ever integrated public transport system is the centerpiece of it. The Greece of the everyday could not have managed it; the Greece of the extraordinary, that often dormant creature, has taken over. Just to travel over the smooth roads, wander in the gleaming new metro stations, see the renovated facades, take a train to the airport, gaze at the dramatically upgraded Olympic complex with its soaring roof, and see bright new squares emerging is to appreciate not just Greek capabilities but performance. No doubt it could have been done faster, cheaper, and with more environmental awareness; but there’s no denying the results. Until the Games are over, plenty will be biting their nails hoping the whole orchestra comports itself well and that nobody drops his violin bow or loses his place in the score. A heavy load Concrete, that humble mix of sand, gravel and slag, has made the Games infrastructure possible. In what amounted to an act of revenge of the banal, a cement mixer being hauled on a truck managed to interrupt one of the key links in the Games, the tram, for over two hours on Tuesday afternoon by severing the system’s power line. I happen to know this because I was on the tram at that moment, though kilometers away, and for the third time in a week was forced off the new system for the old standby, a taxi. From the start, I liked the tram idea and got a genuine kick out of seeing it being tested and opened for business along routes previously ill served by public transport. It’s cheap (60 cents a ride), travels right along the coastline while connecting to the heart of the city, is air-conditioned, and is easily accessed. I was primed to be a satisfied customer. No longer, at least given this past week’s unintended adventures. I don’t like raining on anybody’s parade, but don’t mind being a raindrop when necessary. The first time I tried, a tram took so long to come (over half an hour) that I had to take a taxi to my destination. The second time it worked well: I caught one just as it was leaving Syntagma, and made it to near Piraeus in 45 minutes, about half that seated. That evening I decided to cap the day by taking it back to the center, taking advantage (it seemed) of Athens’s first 24-hour public transport link. First, I waited 40 minutes (from 11.30 p.m. until 12.10 a.m.) at a darkened stop for the first tram to appear. The one that finally arrived wasn’t headed to the city center but to Glyfada, so I got off at the junction halfway along, and waited again. After watching other bored would-be passengers lick ice cream for another 45 minutes, I finally gave up and flagged a taxi down. It was 1.45 by the time I was back downtown; the whole trip took well over two hours, and most of it was still by taxi (double fare for the night ride, naturally). You can drive from Athens to the central Peloponnese in that time. And then came Tuesday’s adventure in which, after an agonizing hour-long trip from Syntagma snaking through residential streets, we sat in idle confusion before discovering that the power line had been cut. Again I had to take a taxi, arriving 90 minutes after first setting out. Some of it’s bad luck and teething problems, but you can’t laugh off three bad experiences in four. Friends joke that the taxi drivers’ union is behind it all, but that group should have little to fear. At this rate, it’s difficult to recommend the system to anyone, save for Nea Smyrni residents working downtown, or people living along the route hopping off to the sea for an afternoon swim (many of whom were on board). This is worrying for the Games, because so many sports will be competed in the venues to the southeast, Hellenikon and Faliron. The tram is advertised as the best way to get there. The sports to be competed in those areas are legion: sailing at Agios Cosmas; basketball, fencing, baseball, softball, field hockey, and canoe slalom races at Hellenikon; triathlon at Vouliagmeni; tae kwon do, handball, beach volleyball and regular volleyball at Faliron; and soccer matches at Piraeus. That accounts for nearly half the 28 Olympic sports. Heavy reliance on a shaky new system for ferrying countless thousands of people every day to those areas is fraught with potential pitfalls, and planners might focus more on additional bus routes along with far more frequent tram service. A single interruption, and the resulting pileup of passengers whose day at the Olympics is ruined will hog the headlines. Diagonally across Attica, things were moving a lot more smoothly early Sunday morning. One of the more unlikely triumphs has been the completion of the marathon road link along which the racers will run on consecutive Sundays, August 22 and 29. Marathon tales The marathon road was a disaster zone as recently as early spring, when the old contractor went under and had to be replaced, and along with it, much of its faulty works. The task seemed impossible, but it’s all finished now, a gleaming four-lane highway, save for parts of the guardrail and the access roads; workers were busy planting trees. At the official handover ceremony Tuesday, the public works minister, Giorgos Siouflias, could barely contain his relief, saying he felt like he had built it himself (he’s an engineer). I was denied entrance to the nearby rowing venue at Schinias, by the way, without accreditation to my name even at this late date. No badge, no entry is the unstinting rule, as it should be. You can’t get into anywhere without it. The accreditation process used to be mysterious, then maddening, but I’ve developed a serenity about it all. Now I’m confident it will all be sorted out by the time the Games are over. And that’s only a month away. John Ross’s book «Olympic Homecoming,» published by Explorer Press in May 2004, is available at major Athens bookstores.