NEWS

IOC’s ‘Denis the Menace’ brings out the bulldozers

For weeks, the small soccer stadium inside the old quarry in the western suburb of Nikaia had been quiet. The only bustle was the normal activity of dozens of teenagers kicking balls across the chalky field. Then, without warning, bulldozers and other heavy machinery rumbled in and began clearing the area. Soccer coaches scrambled to salvage their sports equipment as clouds of white dust settled on the field, which will be the site of the 5,000-seat weightlifting hall for the 2004 Olympics. The reason for the sudden burst of activity? Inspectors from the International Olympic Committee are coming to Athens this week – two months ahead of time – to check on the progress of long-delayed construction projects. Denis Oswald, a former Olympic rower from Switzerland who is the chief watchdog of the 2004 Games, will lead a team of 44 IOC inspectors for the Sept. 26-28 visit. Oswald – dubbed Denis the Menace by some Greek media – jolted the government and Olympic organizers from a summer slumber by announcing the surprise inspection visit. In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, security issues are likely to take center stage during the three-day review, but it won’t necessarily top the agenda. The government has already said it will overhaul its $600 million security plan. But more security will not make up for the valuable time lost by Athens in the first three years after it won the bid. Even before his arrival, Oswald expressed concern over delays and sent a list of venues he wanted to see, such as the weightlifting site in Nikaia. Athens organizers, led by Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, insist the clock is their biggest adversary and time literally stopped for the organizers this summer. A clock set up on a busy highway outside Athens’s Olympic sports complex to count down the days until the opening of the Games was discovered to have been broken for weeks. It later was repaired. Organizers concede the governing Socialists had done little since a June visit by Rogge, when bulldozers again were hauled out to clear land at two other delayed sports venues. On Thursday, there was some progress. Parliament approved legislation aimed at cutting through much of the bureaucracy that has delayed preparations. The measure provides legal sanctions for major works and urban improvement plans and includes a wide range of provisions – from hiring more than 3,000 Culture Ministry employees to reducing the billboard space in downtown Athens. The government is now talking about handing out loans and grants to keep airlines and insurance companies from going bankrupt. The former furrier is now a stock market analyst.