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Monday, October 15, 2001

Athens 2004

IOC Not Impressed By Greek “Folk Wisdom”

Greeks like to say that, although they do things at the last minute, they somehow always manage to pull through. It’s such a popular sentiment that President Kostis Stephanopoulos expressed it to explain how Athens will deal with its Olympian delays. However, it’s a bit of Greek folk wisdom that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) doesn’t want to hear anymore.

Following an IOC inspection on September 26-28, Alex Gilady, the Israeli member, said that one of his goals was to convince Greeks to stop saying “that in Greece we are used to doing things at the last minute and usually they work.” The Greek government has insisted since it was awarded the Olympics in 1997 that it will organize memorable 2004 games, as well as deliver the venues on time. It was a reasonable promise when it was made because Athens had 70 percent of the venues already built, but, since then, the only thing as consistent as the government’s assurances has been the IOC’s warnings about delays.

After the recent visit to judge Athens’s progress, Denis Oswald, the man in charge of the IOC coordinating committee for 2004, said that significant problems remain in venue and road construction, accommodation, and transport. “We feel that measures have to be taken immediately in order to be sure that we are back on track and that everything is delivered on time,” Oswald said. “It is important also for the test events….We will have a number of test events in the different sports…even one year prior to the games, and the condition for these test events is obviously that the installations are ready on time,” said Oswald, a Swiss lawyer who is head of the International Rowing Federation.

Athens’s organization has been plagued by problems since the city was awarded the bid four years ago. The government has yet to build any venues, with only 34 months remaining before the games are held. Former IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch warned last year that organizers were running out of time, which prompted Prime Minister Kostas Simitis both to bring back Athens bid leader Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki and to pledge personal involvement in the preparations.

When Angelopoulos-Daskalaki was first appointed over a year ago, she used to say, “We are running a marathon at a sprinter’s pace.” Now she has changed her tune. “We also need the government’s support, not with words, but with actions,” she commented after the IOC visit. “The coordinating committee has expressed its concern in matters relating to construction of venues and sports facilities. It is clear: We need infrastructure and cannot afford delays….It is the government that must construct the foundation for a great Olympic Games.”

Deadlines have repeatedly been pushed back over the years, and the government has blamed delays on the “Greek way” of doing things. “The timetable can be assessed in many and different ways. In Greece…we have a mentality as a country and as a society. We are very polite and very flexible when we have discussions with foreigners, and we make overly optimistic judgments,” said Evangelos Venizelos, minister of culture and an important official in the 2004 organization.

Nevertheless, IOC officials are worried, and they have also grown tired of issuing warnings every two months. They are starting to believe that the delays are due to a stop-and-go approach, working hard when an IOC team is about to visit for an update and then slackening off after it leaves. IOC president Jacques Rogge, formerly the head of the Athens oversight committee, has regularly criticized the bureaucracy in Greece. “There should be no comfort in the fact that 2004 sounds far off in the distance,” said Rogge, in his first visit to Athens as head of the IOC.

Venizelos claims that Rogge has gotten it all wrong, saying Greece has experience in construction, while the IOC does not. “The IOC has no experience in construction, while it has great experience in all the non-construction programs of the Olympic Games, which are repeated almost identically in every Olympics organization….This explains the difference in the points of view,” according to Venizelos. Oswald stresses that the IOC does know about construction, and he adds that prolonged delays jeopardize the delivery date of the venues. “We know you can postpone the beginning of the work once, twice, but if you postpone too much, at the end it is difficult to achieve the final date of delivery,” Oswald says.

The clock keeps ticking. Tight deadlines may therefore force officials to resort to prefabricated venues, including nearly all the sporting facilities along the southern coast, where boxing, handball, and tae kwon do are scheduled to take place. This decision means that the games may not leave a legacy to the city, which was an important reason for having them come back to their birthplace.

There are “a number of areas where we have delays. And these areas are mainly connected with construction, and when I say construction, it is not just construction of sports venues, but also construction of road infrastructure,” Oswald said after his inspection. “If you do not have a road to get to the best technical installation, the best stadium, obviously it is not useful.” Greece needs to be constantly monitored and pressed in order to move ahead, Oswald warns.

Accommodation is another big problem, as there is a vast shortage of hotel rooms in the capital. There is nowhere to house the many spectators that are expected to travel to Greece for the games. About 3,500 rooms still remain to be booked for the 16,000 members of the Olympics organization, which includes referees and officials. Hoteliers and the government have been at odds over building new hotels because their post-Olympics use is uncertain. Organizers have suggested using cruise ships docked at the main port of Piraeus.

Other major delays are the table tennis and gymnastics venue in Goudi. The contract for the facility was supposed to have been signed in July 2001, then was pushed back to September, and now still remains to be announced. Canceled road works that would connect venues and cut down on the traffic clogging the capital could create a transport problem. Already, an extension to one of the major arteries in the area will not be built, and there are concerns about an important ring road leading to Piraeus. Finally, plans are still uncertain on construction of proposed suburban rail and tram lines to connect the city center with seaside venues.

“IOC-stated reservations may be correct, but they refer to some works and not to the totality of works under construction,” according to Tilemahos Hitiris, a government spokesman. In an attempt to cut down on bureaucracy, the government approved legislation on legal sanctions for major works, as well as urban-improvement plans. It includes a wide range of provisions, from hiring more than 3,000 culture ministry employees to reducing the billboard space in downtown Athens. Not all venues are behind schedule, however. The most controversial one, the rowing center at Schinias, 30 kilometers (18 miles) north of Athens, is two months ahead of the timetable.

In August, Oswald sent an expert to check on Athens’s progress and found that the situation was alarming. Oswald was also concerned that a crisis in the governing PASOK party was a factor in the slow preparations. For months, Simitis’s government has been in the midst of political turmoil because of failing to meet economic targets or fixing the bankrupt social security system. An emergency party convention that adjourned on October 14 finally decided that Simitis will stay as head of the party.

Some IOC members are upset by the government’s lack of visible progress and are looking toward the next stage in the preparations, which is technical, such as the test events. The first test event will be held at the sailing center in Agios Kosmas. Construction is set to begin in November.

There are some aspects of the preparations that have proven very successful, such as marketing, licensing, volunteers, and broadcasting, all run by the 2004 organizing committee. In any case, while the games will go on in Athens, they might never come back home again. “Only Greece can organize such magical games because of the historical heritage, and we do not want to miss this opportunity. The next one might only come in 100 years, and we have some hope to have a long life, but probably not long enough to see the next games in Athens,” Oswald comments. The next inspection by the IOC is set for November 21-23.

Lisa Orkin works in the Athens bureau of Associated Press.
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