NEWS

From temple of Hephaestus, a new flame relay is under way; Olympic organizers also stage ‘parallel’ Games for first time

Athens (and Greece) may have surmounted an entire mountain range of doubts by putting on the Olympic Games successfully, when it almost immediately began facing another, and hardly less challenging, task in staging the second part of its Olympic summer, the Paralympics. Sisyphus may have reached the peak, but now he’s pushing his boulder up yet another slope. The modern world gives precious little time for resting on laurels, and in this case the Athens 2004 organizers have had less than three weeks to see 11,000 athletes off, catch their breath and then prepare to welcome over 4,000 Paralympians to many of the very same venues that hosted Olympic sports last month, including the Olympic Village. The first step in a nine-day final buildup toward their September 17 opening began last night with a flame-lighting ceremony in Thiseion, at the fifth-century-BC temple of Hephaestus, the god of fire and metalwork who, in legend, was born lame. The flame was to rest last night at the Herod Atticus Theater on the south side of the Acropolis, the first stop in a circuitous route that was unveiled in late May at a ceremony at Athens 2004 headquarters, involving nearly 700 torchbearers and passing through 54 municipalities, along 410 kilometers (255 miles) around Attica and back to the main stadium for the opening ceremonies a week from today. City in progress The Paralympics present an opportunity but almost a wild-card challenge to the city. A well-staged event would be icing on the cake for the organizers, who brilliantly brought together the Olympics still so fresh in memory. It would be especially gratifying for an organization which, for the first time, assumed the responsibility of staging both the Paralympics and the Olympic Games, both of which have grown by leaps and bounds in recent decades. Athens 2004 chief Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki insisted last week that the two «are the same deal… We are preparing for these Games with the same passion and we want to give the same picture to the people who will attend them.» They are equal in one sense: This year, for the first time, Paralympians will compete for free, whereas earlier, costs were defrayed by charging a fee; the Games’ cost is running around 100 million euros. A charming seahorse, called Proteas, is the mascot. Yet Athens has long presented a forbidding presence to anybody in a wheelchair, a situation only partly rectified by public and private projects in the last few years, and stiffer requirements to provide better building access. How well will the city cope? During a February 2004 inspection visit, members of the IPC (International Paralympic Committee), which is headed by Phil Craven, cited the city’s relative inaccessibility for the disabled as a problem. This, of course, comes as no surprise to most Athenians. In earlier years, this problem was compounded by seeming nonchalance with regard to the Paralympics – again mirroring the overall Olympics effort – though this has largely been overcome by the organizers, not least thanks to the 15,000 volunteers on hand. Some evidence of citywide progress can be seen, on both the legislative and practical sides (through more ramps and the like), though for a modern European city a great deal more needs to be done. By the end of 2003, all public buildings were to have wheelchair access. Many still don’t, even apart from the cracked sidewalks, cramped elevators, barricaded street corners and curious parking habits that prevail in the average neighborhood. Access remains the main problem; the newer transport facilities, and especially the new sports venues, not only have disabled access but were built with the Paralympics partly in mind. More buses are also equipped to handle this need than there used to be. Yet other features found in other cities, such as crossing lights that beep for the blind, are apparently left for the future. A growing history The Paralympics, which began in 1960 in Rome, were once a minor adjunct to the Olympic family, for years being held in a separate city from the Olympics proper. Their origins go back to early postwar Britain, which first staged sports events for veterans wounded in the war and needing rehabilitation. This first effort, in 1948 in Stoke Mandeville, went international four years later, and within eight more, were given the «Olympic» designation. After the first two overlapped with the «regular» Games, their venues diverged as Tel Aviv, Heidelberg, Toronto, Arnhem, and Stoke Mandeville/ New York hosted them through 1984. This changed again in 1988 when the Seoul organizers staged both and carried a flame by relay for the first time, lit offshore in Korea. But even as the Olympics have grown in size, so have the Paralympics. From 400 at the first Games the numbers have grown tenfold, the sports from six to 19, and the countries represented from 23 to 145. For Athens, over 300 hours of Paralympic events will be televised. And how many people know that there is also a Winter Paralympics? They got under way in 1976. The Summer Paralympics are now the second-largest sporting event in the world; Athens has just hosted the biggest. They exceed even soccer’s World Cup in size, athletes and, of course, sports offerings. Olympic success is often matched at these «parallel» Games; for example, British prowess in equestrian sports was matched at the 2000 Sydney Paralympics (with their athletes winning seven medals and five golds), while Australia dominated cycling with 10 gold medals. At Sydney in 2000, the «parallel» nature of the two Games was eerily reflected in the doping situation: At each Games, nine athletes were disqualified. And Athens certainly won’t be the last; in yet another display of their determination to get off to a fast start, the Beijing 2008 organizers already unveiled, in July, the 2008 Paralympic emblem. It remains to be seen how Athens and Athenians will respond to this second Olympics – Games for people with special needs but displaying special talents, and in a much busier month than August. But anybody who thinks that this amounts to a big feel-good event about people who feel bad might have a surprise or two coming; even the wheelchair racers wear helmets, suggesting some rough-and-tumble action on the track, while the Sydney closing ceremonies were described as «informal, irreverent, and one big party.» It promises to be a surprising and eventful latter half of September.