The value (and peril) of a report card

This column may have been on hold for the past few weeks, but at least some of the Athens Olympics preparations apparently haven’t been. Neither Christmas nor even the city’s recent snowstorm were used as excuses for delays, to the palpable relief of the IOC Coordination Commission’s chief, Denis Oswald, and his fellow commission members visiting here this week. Some concerns have actually diminished, like the Olympic Village; others emerged as growing headaches, foremost road transportation (Kifissias Avenue flyovers) and accommodation. But overall, the «cruising speed» (his term) reached in November remains in place, meaning not that everything is fine but that the situation is manageable – barely, and provided that there are no further delays. There is «no reserve day» out of the 931 left. My, the 2004 Games are practically around the corner. That, in a nutshell, is what we learned following the recent, two-day visit of the IOC’s Coordination Commission, at a midday press conference in the august confines of Zappeion Hall. Perhaps it was the inspired surroundings, but the general quality of the questions was head and shoulders higher than on some previous occasions. And as the first substantive point made was that the swimming pool roof remained a problem, two things were clear: that the ground isn’t necessarily opening up to swallow the Olympics effort outright, but also that unresolved problems remain the order of the day. These trimonthly visits always generate a flurry of activity. This one had a different character from November’s; as major and minor visits alternate (even if they are all important in their own way), this was a small working visit of just six IOC members; it also apparently aimed at ensuring that the mice won’t play when the cat’s away at the upcoming Salt Lake City Winter Games next month. They were here to follow the agenda set by the unresolved issues of last time, which consisted of venue and transport construction, the Olympic and Media villages, and accommodation. The next visitation will be early April, which will be much higher profile, with the entire commission on hand. In public, in private The Olympics preparations combine a very public profile with a very private operating style. «Nothing is secret,» Mr Oswald assured everyone (while holding up a big colored chart, the kind used to track progress in each Olympiad, to prove it), and there is little about him personally to suggest otherwise, given his earnest approach; he clearly wants the Games to succeed as much as anybody. His straight-talking style offers a refreshing antidote to the daily dose of political mudslinging over the Games that the public is by now inured to; yet he has also become remarkably adept at producing dry backhanded compliments that, if read between the lines, can be less than complimentary (e.g. his relief that the snow wasn’t used as an excuse for delay). Still, the entire session, the working groups and (of course) the meetings with ministers, are all behind firmly closed doors, and we have only a closing press conference and brief release to provide some sense of the atmosphere, subjects discussed, and lingering (or building) problems, unless you happen to enjoy chasing participants afterward for crumbs of information. And this approach may well feed the many concerns about illicit documents and exposed letters that periodically get aired for political purposes, as happened again last week in Parliament, leading to three major Athens 2004 Organizing Committee (ATHOC) firings two days ago. At times it’s hard to know who or what to believe, and it doesn’t exactly help the Games’ already battered image. The IOC comes around to see if the government and ATHOC are coordinating among themselves and pulling their weight; and it functions to point out uncomfortable divergences from the set plan, especially construction delays. The flip side of «working together» is «being a pain,» and it will become ever more necessary for the IOC, and also ATHOC, to be so before 2004. Hence the value of a report card, which is both revealing and limiting, and is found in both the choice of words to describe the visit, and the actual chart used to plot progress – the one with the red, yellow and green markings on it that many journalists (and others), for some reason, seem particularly enamored of for its thumbs up or down snapshot value. The problem with such charts, however, is that «progress» is not a one-way, linear path; as Mr Oswald pointed out, a project can fall behind, then catch up and even move ahead (and vice versa), as the Olympic Village has done over the past eight months or so; it is now actually ahead of schedule, despite two major administrative resignations over the past month.Where projects «stand» on any chart is determined by how they coincide with a previously established plan of action. At this point, in other words, it’s all relative. One of the biggest problems now is that we have reached a critical stage in the sense that previous delays create secondary dilemmas. The irreducible concern for everything, of course, is to be finished on time. But a secondary, and more immediate, dilemma is that decisions are needed now for planned projects yet to get under way; whether they should be started at all if there’s a likelihood they won’t be finished, whether alternatives are needed or whether Athens and the Games will simply do without. During 2002’s first half, both major matters in the «red» category, accommodation and transportation, will face such a Hobson’s choice: for example, there is a critical shortage of hotel rooms for the «IOC family» – a deficit of about 2,800, which clearly has upset Athens 2004 President Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki and also Mr Oswald – yet it would be futile to start building new hotels that can’t be finished by Games time. Similarly, there will be no reason to begin building the suburban railway (from the airport) if, as it seems, rolling stock – train cars and electric engines – can’t be delivered in time. A railway without railroad cars isn’t very useful – «ridiculous» is Mr Oswald’s word. Other projects are less critical yet will also depend on action this year – notably the green zone of the Olympic Village, which will look rather forlorn and contrived if all the greenery is planted there within weeks or months of the Games. Trees, as he told his rapt listeners, take time to grow. And there is, as ever, a spanner in the works; in this case, he wants to get the transformation of Hellenikon under way (which envisions some sports events in the old airport hangar buildings), but there’s one small problem; the old airport apparently still has airplanes parked there, nearly a year after it closed. Just don’t tell that to Olympic Airways, which has enough to worry about without having its airplanes going missing. But there is a possible last-ditch, all-in solution; accommodating the roomless dignitaries in the parked airplanes. It would prevent them from having to sleep rough during the Games and, if they could just figure out a way to build a runway near the Olympics complex, it could solve the transport problem as well. Just a thought. 2004 Steps will be appearing every other week. Back on Friday, February 8. Despite the modern equipment, the means of brewing beer differs little from that employed in the ancient world, while everything is essentially done by hand. This is why the beer is different each time.