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Saturday, December 01, 2001

Athens 2004

Countdown to 2004


A continuing series on the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.

With less than 1,000 days left until the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, it looks like officials are finally catching up after years of bureaucratic delays and foot-dragging. Denis Oswald, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) official supervising the Athens games, recently stated, however, that he will keep the pressure on to make sure projects are completed in time. Oswald, who was in Athens on November 22-23 for an update on the progress to date, gave a rare positive report.

After his last visit in September, Oswald had idicated that venue construction was “at risk.” Following his warning, construction crews began to appear at various sites. “We have been very positively surprised by the progress which has been made since our last visit….A number of contracts have been signed, the work has started at different venues,” Oswald said at the end of the visit. “The general impression is a positive impression.”

During the visit, IOC members, 2004 organizers, and government officials discussed their main concerns, which are transport, the Olympic village and National Olympic Committee services, construction, venue operation, and accommodations. Delays still exist, however. “The delays which have been accumulated until now, of course, still exist…even if no additional delays have occurred in the last few weeks, which means that now there is a cruising speed which is satisfactory on the government’s side,” Oswald said.

The organization of the 2004 games slowed three years ago and never fully recovered. Premier Kostas Simitis pledged personal involvement and recently reshuffled his cabinet. He added six deputy ministers to work on organizing the Olympics, including one specifically for security and another to oversee venue construction. There were also reports of infighting among officials and of increasing friction between the 2004 organizers and the government, which has taken control of all Olympic construction projects.

“Apart from the hard work, it is critical for us to have good coordination and planning. You are all aware of the fact that people claim, especially in Greece, that we Greeks usually manage to get things done at the last minute. But for us, who are responsible for the organization of the games, the last minute is right now,” said Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, president of the 2004 committee. Simitis has called on all Greeks to rally around the preparations and overcome the skepticism as to whether the country can organize good games.

“The Olympic Games…, our big effort for a unique organization of the games, is a national issue….It has to do with all Greeks. It speaks about Greece to the world,” Simitis said three days after Oswald’s visit. “Problems exist. Problems will exist. They will exist until the end of 2004. Our job, our obligation, is to overcome all [of them], working with enthusiasm, working everyday with decisiveness,” he concluded.

Angelopoulos-Daskalaki called for unity among Greeks. “We need unity, we do not need tension, and I have to refer to the unique issue that probably exists only in this small country….We feel that the games were here and reborn here and there are many, many people, I assure you, that believe that Olympism is in our genes. It goes from generation to generation, from father and mother to children, and people are very proud,” she said.

Venue construction and transportation are still major concerns for the IOC, and Oswald asked for alternative plans for any canceled road project. “Any piece we have to take, we have no other choice, we have to replace it by something which will contribute to the total scheme,” Oswald said. “I think the government agreed with that….For any problem, any issue we have, we will have a contingency solution.” Extensions of the metro and the creation of a suburban rail-line are extremely important, he added.

Injunctions filed by local residents to stop building in some areas, such as the table tennis and rhythmic gymnastics venues in Galatsi or the weightlifting center in Nikea, must not hinder their construction, Oswald warned. “It is essential that these venues are at our disposal for the games. They are necessary, like all the other ones,” Oswald said. The long-delayed equestrian center at Markopoulo is also a worry. Initially, construction companies showed no interest in the project, and it has since stalled. Plans have now been submitted to the Council of State for approval. “There are very many specific positive developments…but, naturally, there are always some points where we must show special attention….From the works of the general secretariat of sport, it is only Markopoulo,” said Evangelos Venizelos, culture minister and the government official in charge of the games, whose ministry oversees the secretariat.

Another top priority is accommodations. Organizers need to book 23,000 hotel rooms in total, 19,000 of which have to be in the top three categories for use by the “Olympic Family,” which includes IOC members and sports federations. This issue is also problematic, since Athens has a total of 28,907 hotel rooms. Organizers have suggested using cruise ships in Piraeus as an alternative, but important road works connecting the port with venues remain to be built.

Construction of new hotels is planned, while existing hotels will be refurbished, but hoteliers that promised to construct new hotels may now be reluctant because of a sharp decline in tourism after the September 11 attacks. “Time is short, and if the new hotels do not start in March or April 2002, then they cannot be considered as being a safe solution for 2004,” Oswald said. “Time is critical. Time remains the most important factor because we are 994 days away from the games….The first test event is sailing, and it is scheduled to take place in exactly 263 days,” Angelopoulos-Daskalaki added.

Construction of the sailing center could also present a problem since residents of the seaside suburb of Faliron have begun a campaign against building the venue along their coastline. They’ve said that the giant landfill that will be needed will despoil the area’s environment. Plans are being reviewed by the nation’s highest court. The IOC has stressed that timely test events are critical to ensure successful games. Already, the slalom and track-and-field test events have been postponed from their original dates.

Hellenikon (the former international airport), which will house the baseball, softball, slalom, and other venues, is a particular problem, Oswald said. In May, the slalom center was transferred from Marathon to Hellenikon because of cost and environmental concerns, which put the project months behind schedule. “From the athletic works that the public works ministry has, all are going according to the timetables. We need to be on guard, primarily for Hellenikon…but our worry has to do with test events,” said Vaso Papandreou, the newly appointed public works minister. The sailing center and Hellenikon are just two projects under her supervision.

No matter what progress Olympics organizers are making, the IOC will keep the pressure up until the opening ceremony on August 13, 2004. “Generally speaking, we know that time is short, that we will have to keep the pressure on until the end if we want to make sure that the deadlines are met. That’s the only condition if we want to have the facilities that are at our disposal,” Oswald said. The next full IOC coordinating committee meeting in Athens will be from April 3-5, 2002, following the winter games in Salt Lake City, Utah, in February.

Lisa Orkin works in the Athens bureau of Associated Press.
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