Island escapes and Olympic realities

Few things can blow fresh air through the mush of a tired mind like a bracing trip to the Greek islands. Nearby Tinos, with its Church of the Panaghia Evangelistria and famous icon serving as a pilgrimage point for Greeks everywhere, hosted an «informal gathering» last week, for an update on Olympics progress and developments. The second destination, Myconos, provided an equally windy, whitewashed and seasonably arid destination, but dedicated to more earthly and earthy matters. As sport combines spirit and flesh, it would be hard to find better twin venues, representing God and mammon. Tinos also makes claim to having inaugurated, in 1895, the first Panhellenic athletic event, a sort of three-day warmup or test event for the 1896 revival Olympics. Those Games opened on August 15, the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, when the island is known not for athletics but for thousands of ill and infirm flocking there in search of redemption or cure. The gracious local mayor, Savvas Apergis, duly reminded his listeners of Tinos’s place in modern Olympics annals. And though we did not necessarily go seeking miracles for 2004, perhaps the Panaghia at least noticed our off-season presence there. Myconos could boast no such Olympics link – any athletes there, even in 1895, would probably have overslept their competition times because of hangovers from all the nightlife – but the enthusiastic (and apparently deep-pocketed) mayor of Myconos, Christos Veronis, covered many of the expenses and earned much esteem in the process. Although Mrs Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki was called away, plenty of others from Athens 2004, the organizing committee, did show their faces. What transpired was more than a PR exercise but a less-than-exhaustive review of the state of play, 22 months before the event. Its listeners (mostly British journalists with a tenuous grasp of modern Greece, along with a few local faces) left more knowledgeable than before. Tangles and triangles We were given a detailed expose of events and services in the so-called «Olympic Triangle» between the main Olympics compex at Kalogreza, the seaside site at Faliron, and the future complex at Hellenikon, site of the old airport. Football events will be held all over the country, in Thessaloniki, Patras, Volos and Iraklion on Crete, the latter two getting new facilities for over 20,000 spectators. A decision on the men’s football final venue is still pending, Football Tournaments Manager Patrick Comninos admitted; the main Olympic stadium is unavailable, and other stadiums are unsuitable or unfeasible. Venue construction is furiously under way, but doubts linger about schedules; we received more than one pointed reminder that this is the government’s job. Yet there is good building news too; the Olympic Village is ahead of schedule, and seen from the perimeter of what security management consultant Peter Ryan assured us will resemble an armed camp during the Games, this single biggest project is going up at remarkable speed. For the first time an Olympic Village will have its own training facilities, for some 17 sports, along with a second one, at Dekelia, site of an old military airport. And the Nikaia weightlifting venue promises a shining new addition to Athens sports infrastructure. Too bad that even the tour bus got repeatedly lost getting there; not a good idea when ferrying jaded journalists around. A new road is, however, promised. Bricks and mortar will soon give way to whistles and electronic clocks, given a packed schedule for testing all 37 venues. From spring 2003 to spring 2004 some 40 test events will be held, 36 international, 14 of which are «existing» events (held by national federations) and some 26 held by Athens. Next August alone, 10 will be held. Clearly, we’ve only just begun. Greening and cleaning Environmental concerns were bravely tackled by Giorgos Kazanzopoulos, fighting an uphill battle to win converts to the «Olympic green space project.» At least some results can be demonstrated, namely the careful removal operation of 700 old olive trees at Markopoulo, to be replanted later on. Clearly, these Olympics involve environmental pilot projects that could last. Those lucky enough to win the lottery to live at the Olympic Village will find 65 percent green and public space; the huge dirt mounds now at Faliron will form a rehabilitated area for better pedestrian access to the coast; environmentally conscious waste management by services will be a priority. Plans to maximize existing buildings, like the old airport hangars for indoor sports or the Helexpo center for the main media center, another part of the environmental agenda. Other efforts seem less convincing, notably reclaiming the Skinias wetlands and bird sanctuary, given this project’s long-running controversy that forced the canoe slalom to Hellenikon. The high-tech video showing the 2.2-km-long rowing lake after the Games indicated no seating arrangement; when this was pointed out by Kathimerini English Edition, it was admitted that 1,000 permanent seats will remain, the rest removed. And the continuing promises of some 55 million new small bushes to be planted around the city look more forlorn than they did six months ago, before those nourishing rains fell. Hats off, though, to the organizers for facing this difficult task squarely, which includes auxiliary aspects like packaging, volunteer operations and licensee behavior. They can hardly do it alone; it needs public and governmental help too. Housing the hordes Spyros Pappas, accommodations manager, indicated that concerns are gradually shifting from accommodating the «Olympic family» – including IOC officials, judges and referees, sponsors, national Olympic committee reps, and (surprise) the media – to housing the masses of visitors. For the «family,» 17,300 rooms have been secured, most in 5-, 4- and 3-star accommodation, while seven media villages will have 10,000 beds. Eleven cruise ships will house another 2,400, including the still-under-construction Queen Mary, which will be completely reserved for Games use and will make Piraeus – which they insist will be totally refurbished – quite a sight in August 2004. All this may be child’s play in comparison with the problem of housing spectators: Anything from 150,000 to 400,000 people will come and go daily from Attica, attending an event or two in tandem with package tours. With most good hotel space taken, plans are to house many on nearby islands, like Hydra, Spetses, Tinos and Myconos. Mr Pappas’s audience needed some convincing; it didn’t help that we had sat the day before watching a waterspout descending from threatening clouds nearby. A single weather-related act of God would create havoc, but probabilities are what must be dealt with. And some print journalists didn’t take kindly to the prospect of staying in university housing, however «fully refurbished and upgraded.» Getting around What a challenge the Games are for Athens 2004’s transportation general manager. The new transport system could well be, as Panos Protopsaltis says, «probably the most important legacy of the Games,» especially as Athens will for the first time get a genuine east-west beltway or «ring road» around the city, extending from the new airport to Elefsina on the coast, with a north-south axis extending the National Road south to the Peace and Friendship Stadium at Faliron by the sea. Another upgrade, from Vari to Koropi, will link the airport to the south coast and Markopoulo. And roads are just the beginning. The suburban rail system from the airport will, he says, be completed, with compatible rolling stock; the tram system from the center to Faliron/Hellenikon (suffering some bad press and being rerouted recently), will facilitate traffic to the coastal venues; (old) metro and station upgrades will boost capacity to 26,000 passengers per hour; and 100 kilometers of new bus lanes will be laid. No less important is the plan to overhaul city signposting, while those parking illegally in priority areas during the Games are not likely to get away with it. Computer-linked traffic lights will facilitate traffic and an «incident management» operation at traffic police headquarters will keep the flow going. Two items are crucial: maximizing rail use, and use of dedicated traffic lanes during the Games. All visiting ticketholders will have free access to public transport all day. Special cops (1,100) and closed-circuit cameras will monitor it all, while 150 new tow trucks will be ready to pounce. Last but hardly least Games services were taken up by Stratis Telloglou, 2004 accreditation manager, who covered everything from food and medical services to visa processes and doping control, all individually important items. Accreditation and security go hand in hand. The security infrastructure alone will cost over $600 million – not counting operational expenses. Security planning is a world in itself; fundamentally mundane, yet requiring threat assessments worthy of Tom Clancy – whose name was pointedly brought up in Peter Ryan’s authoritative talk. Briefly, several elements were underscored: Security is vital but never guaranteed; the Greek police are basically responsible; rapid response capability is paramount; security must be friendly but alert and firm, well-trained and equipped; and it must be fully integrated into Games operations. Some 45,000 personnel will be involved, including a new, special Olympics crime squad to combat fraud. For all the requisite centralization, liaising between Greek forces, seven assisting nations, participants and visitors is equally essential. Mrs Angelopoulos-Daskalaki said this week that «all our heads are on the block.» There are plenty of heads.