SPORTS

IOC chief defends Athens 2004 organizers

IOC chief Jacques Rogge has sprung to the defense of Athens organizers with a resounding vote of confidence in their ability to stage Games fit for the country where the Olympics were born. Rogge said that after a slow start, preparations were back on track. «We are pleased by the pace of progress now,» Rogge said in a telephone interview with Reuters yesterday, in the week that Athens starts the one-year countdown to next August’s Games. «Unless something unforeseen happens, they are going to make it if they keep up this pace.» However, he warned there was «still a lot to do» and time would chase organizers right up until the last minute before the opening ceremony on August 13, 2004. «They must keep up the present sense of urgency and not relax for a minute,» Rogge said. «With the launch of a space shuttle, if you uncover even a minor problem you can delay takeoff for a week. With the Games, you can’t delay for even an hour.» While not dismissing the seriousness of shortcomings uncovered last week in the first of a series of test events this month, Rogge said that «paradoxically» the trials were meant to expose flaws. In general, operations and infrastructure at the rowing and archery venues stood up very well. The rowing venue came in for the most criticism with the German team forced to withdraw with food poisoning and strong winds forcing events to be held up for nearly two days. The setbacks dashed organizers’ hopes of showing during this month’s venue testing that much-criticized preparations were back on track. «Mistakes have been discovered in the planning of sports events, in hospitality, among volunteers, while communications and crisis management functions didn’t work,» the respected newspaper Eleftherotypia, one of the country’s largest, and normally pro-government, said. Rogge said Greece, as the home of both the ancient and modern Olympics, had had to live with greater scrutiny than any other previous Olympic city. «The burden of expectation on Greece as the birthplace of the Olympics is greater than for any other country. Much greater,» said Rogge who has been involved in 15 Olympics. With a general election due by next May when opinion polls forecast there could be a change of government from the present Socialists to conservatives, Rogge said every time he visited Athens, he made a point of meeting with leaders of the country’s main political parties to plead for the Games not to become a political football. «Each time I have received pledges from everyone that the Games would be treated in a bipartisan way,» Rogge said. «Greeks would never forgive their politicians if there was quarreling and delays to the Games in the name of politics.» Rogge said his main advice to Athens organizers at this moment was that now was the time to start decentralizing control of the event so people on the spot had the authority to solve problems rather than all issues having to wait for a central decision. Some Athens officials have complained that while the need for iron-fisted control had been needed to get major projects done on time, preparations had entered a new phase where people on the ground needed greater authority. «Decentralization of control was what helped to make the Sydney and Barcelona Games such a success,» Rogge said. «Now is the time for Athens to also move in that direction.»