posted May 04, 2004 03:15 PM
All Work, No Play 100 Days Before Olympics
By LISA ORKIN, Associated Press Writer
ATHENS, Greece - The sprint to the Olympics is being run through an obstacle course. Frantic work — including on the main stadium — slogs on in mud, through rainstorms and at night. Roads and squares are ripped up for repaving or new rail lines. Cement mixers and cranes snarl city traffic. Whirlwinds of dust spin through neighborhoods. Ready or not, the Athens Games will start 100 days from Wednesday.
"My major challenge is the same as that faced by everybody else involved in games preparations: Stay focused and make every minute count, because we don't have a moment to lose," chief Athens Olympics organizer Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki said.
Preparations for these games have been racked by delays and glitches. Four years ago, about the biggest last-minute concern officials in Sydney had was planting flowers outside arenas.
And for Athens' 4 million residents, the frustrations and burdens of living in a giant work-in-progress could get worse before the Aug. 13-29 Olympics begin.
The International Olympic Committee (news - web sites) arrives Monday for its last major inspection visit, hoping everything comes together in the days ahead.
"We won't have much time before the games, that is for sure," Denis Oswald, the top IOC overseer of Athens' preparations, told The Associated Press. "Some time ago, we were also fearing that things would be ready only after the games. Now we are confident that everything will be finished before the games."
But just how soon before is still an open question.
Oswald and the IOC want all venues finished by the end of June. That applies even to the main stadium's new roof, whose two huge arches still must be moved into place. Attempts to glide the two sides into place could begin later this week.
Other key projects, including a new tram line, are not expected to be ready until less than a month before the opening ceremony. And progress on a roof for the swimming pool was so far behind, it was scrapped altogether.
"Our experts who have reviewed these plans say, 'Yes, it's feasible. It can be done,'" Oswald said. "But as long as it's not done, you never know if any unexpected difficulty will arise."
IOC president Jacques Rogge put Athens organizers on notice that he expects some welcome surprises during next week's visit.
"I look forward to hearing more news from them of how much is being accomplished in a short time," Rogge said.
"As we enter the final stretch together, most of the preparations are already complete," he added. "More work remains, however, and we are continuing our close cooperation ... to ensure that everything needed for the games to succeed is in place."
It wasn't supposed to be like this.
When Athens was awarded the Olympics in 1997, organizers boasted that 70 percent of the venues were in place. The Athens Games, the IOC was assured, would be organized on a "human scale," without grandiose or cumbersome projects.
But the system couldn't shake its old habits. The Socialist government (which was ousted in elections in March) let three years slip by with little progress on Olympic work.
The IOC began to panic. In 2000, then-IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch publicly scolded Athens for the delays.
Then came Sept. 11, 2001. Those attacks — and later terrorist strikes in Turkey and Spain — turned the Athens Games into the biggest security effort in Olympics history. The price tag has reached nearly $1.2 billion and could rise if threats escalate.
The overall Olympic budget is already more than $1 billion above the planned $5.5 billion.
For the first time, the IOC took out cancellation insurance, which protects against a terrorist attack, earthquakes and other natural disasters. The $170 million policy would give the IOC, national Olympic committees and sports federations enough money to continue operations.
"We are doing everything which is humanly possible to have the maximum security," Athens Mayor Dora Bakoyianni said. "We have to show that modern Greece is able to organize very good Olympic Games (news - web sites)."
When her party, New Democracy, won national elections, it inherited the Olympic headaches. The new premier, Costas Caramanlis, took responsibility by making himself culture minister — the official in charge of coordinating Olympic preparation.
His government pressed contractors to work around the clock and sign contracts promising to finish work on time.
"It is not time to blame or criticize," deputy culture minister Fani Palli-Petralia said. "Many things could have been done, but at this moment we are focusing on today and we are doing what has to do with today. We are not looking back, only forward."
Palli-Petralia makes what she calls "raids" on contractors at night to make sure they are sticking to the tight deadlines.
Each week, she tours the most high-profile project: the steel-and-glass roof on the main stadium. The roof, designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, has been so far behind schedule that the IOC considered canceling it.
Some Athenians wish the IOC would just call off the whole thing.
"I do not care at all about the games. It would be better to not have them so that we could have our peace," Eftihia Liakakou said in the seaside suburb of Paleo Faliron.
Residents there staged protests and sued to stop construction of a tram line they say will restrict access to the beach.
Georgia Leilemidou, who works in a pastry shop in the same neighborhood, just wants life to get back to normal.
"It is a hassle. Athens is an endless construction site," Leilemidou said. "When will it end?"