SPORTS

George Bush senior backs the Olympics

Former US President George Bush gave organizers of the troubled Athens 2004 Olympics a vote of confidence yesterday, saying he and his wife will be in the Greek capital during the Games. In a letter sent to Games chief Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, Bush, the father of current US President George W. Bush, said organizers were doing an «outstanding job,» despite international criticism of the Games’ security plans and overall preparations. «I am 100 percent confident that your great country, you yourself and your committee are all doing an outstanding job. The Olympics belong to Greece, and Greece will do well by the Olympics,» Bush wrote in the letter. Games organizers are rushing to complete dozens of key Olympic venues, less than four months before the August 13-29 Olympics get under way. They have also had to defend themselves against a barrage of media reports questioning the Games’ security arrangements. Greece is putting in place the biggest ever Olympic security plan, costing 650 million euros ($783.6 million) and deploying 45,000 security staff – more than three times the number used in the Sydney 2000 Games. Bush has been a regular visitor to Greece after losing the 1992 US presidential elections. Also commenting on the Athens Olympics yesterday, several NBA stars playing with the Sacramento Kings, as well as the competition’s commissioner, David Stern, expressed confidence over the handling of the Games, while noting that the basketball competition should be one of the most exciting in Olympic history. The comments, in an interview for an upcoming edition of a regular publication by Athens 2004, the Olympiad’s organizer, came not long after growing concern, mostly by American athletes, over security. Certain athletes have said they would not attend, while others, including tennis star Serena Williams, have adopted a wait-and-see attitude about the first Summer Olympics since the September 11, 2001 attacks in the US. «In Barcelona, every team faced the ‘dream team’ with awe and adoration. But in Athens, all teams will fight to beat us,» said Stern, the NBA commissioner. NBA professionals were allowed to represent the USA in an Olympic tournament for the first time in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Chris Webber, one of the stars at Sacramento Kings, said he hoped to make it for the Olympics basketball tournament. Reiterating Stern’s remarks on tougher competition for the USA’s star-studded team in Athens, Webber’s Serb teammate Peja Stojakovic was one of two Serb NBA players who said his national team, Serbia and Montenegro, would stare the USA face-to-face for gold. «We’re all optimistic we can beat the Americans and win the gold medal. If we are healthy and [the team is] complete, we can make it – even if the Americans will want to take revenge for their failure in the Indianapolis World Championships,» said Stojakovic, referring to the USA’s disappointing sixth place at the 2003 world championships. Stojakovic, formerly with Thessaloniki team PAOK, said he expected to feel at home in Greece. «I am sure the Greek crowd will embrace us – Serbs, and me in particular, will feel like I’m playing at home,» he noted. «If our team plays clever, controls the rhythm and avoids crazy shots, then it can beat the Americans,» said Serbia and Montenegro’s Vlade Divac, center with the Sacramento Kings. «It will be the most stirring tournament in Olympic history… at least seven teams will vie for three medals and the level of competition will be very high.» Away from the competition and to construction, IOC inspectors began a three-day review of Olympic sites yesterday, including the troubled roof over the main stadium. Gilbert Felli, the executive director of the Olympics, met with Athens organizers and was to be joined today by IOC chief overseer for Athens, Denis Oswald. The inspection coincides with plans to begin fitting half of the main stadium roof, a string of pre-Olympic test events, and a re-examination of Olympic costs by Greece’s new conservative government. The first section of the roof will be slid into place using tracks placed on either side of the 75,000-seat stadium. The structure is designed to give the 20-year-old stadium a modern look, and shield spectators from the strong August sunlight and heat. Rotating construction crews are working round the clock to catch up on delays on the roof, and the vital tram system linking downtown Athens to seaside venues. Greece’s conservative government, which defeated the long-governing Socialists in general elections last month, has been forced to scale back several delayed Olympic projects but has promised to cover major cost overruns. While in Athens, Oswald is also expected to gauge the success of several test events held to try out Athens’s organization and venues. He will meet today with Games organizers and the ministers of health and transport. A delegation from the International Paralympic Committee also began two days of talks here yesterday for the September 17-28 games. Meanwhile, Greece’s deputy health minister, Thanassis Yiannopoulos, told reporters yesterday that the number of hospitals earmarked to host ailing athletes, officials and visitors during the Games would be cut by half to 12 hospitals instead of the 24 initially agreed upon with organizers. «Experience from previous Olympics shows that just 75 to 90 people were hospitalized daily in emergency wards,» the minister said. (Reuters, AFP, AP, Kathimerini)