Smooth start for sailing, month’s final test event

Pre-Olympic sailing races began yesterday with organizers hoping for a smooth end to a series of test events after a humiliating start. Sailing is the final of seven competitions held this month to assess the conditions of venues and give personnel experience. But even more was at stake for Athens, where officials are struggling to cast off the city’s reputation as a place too disorganized and sluggish to stage a top-quality Olympics. Greek leaders have repeatedly called next year’s games a matter of national pride. Crisis-free sailing competitions, which end August 28, would provide a significant boost for organizers’ morale after a rocky start. Gale-force winds – an annual summer occurrence in Greece – caused havoc to the rowing events that opened the tests on August 6. One day of competition was canceled and the rest was held on a shortened course. The turmoil reopened debates about the decision to build the rowing course in a site exposed to the seasonal winds. The German rowing team, meanwhile, dropped out after hotel food left them with salmonella poisoning. But other events – archery, cycling and an equestrian competition – had few serious glitches. Beach volleyball, which ends Sunday, has so far been spared troubles. Organizers said 395 athletes from 43 countries will participate in the test event regatta in sailboat classes including Finn, Europe, Laser, Mistral, 49er, Tornado, Yngling, Star and 470. Last August, organizers first tested the venue even though it was not finished. «The venue has progressed a lot. It is very impressive. It fulfills the conditions for the 2004 Olympic Games. We would say it is perfect,» said Britain’s Ben Ainslie, competing in the Finn class. «In Atlanta and Sydney, the facilities that were built were temporary, but in Greece they are permanent and thus comprise a source of worth and significant heritage,» Paul Henderson, the president of the International Sailing Federation, was quoted as saying by organizers. Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos, who toured the site with chief 2004 organizer Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, said it was very «satisfying» to see the venue functioning. «The conditions here are ideal,» boasted Angelopoulos-Daskalaki.