Greeks bask in last-minute glories

Posted: Sunday, June 13, 2004

ATHENS, Greece The city's main square is torn up. Marble tiles sit in stacks and barricades block all entrances.

Subway-bound Athenians have to step over debris, navigate cracked sidewalks and avoid clouds of dust from a bulldozer.

Just two months before the Summer Olympics, most key projects are finally done or coming together astonishing skeptics and gratifying Greeks who banked everything on their last-minute style.

''All indications are that everything will be ready in time, even if it will be at the last moment,'' International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge told the Belgian newspaper Le Soir.

It's now the details that could haunt the Olympic homecoming.

The condition of the main Syntagma Square and many other aspects of life in Athens will shape the image of the games and Greece itself as it desperately seeks to breathe life into its sagging tourism industry. An untidy and unfinished cityscape would undercut attempts to showcase the modern side of this ancient land.

''We are not perfect ... but I'm sure we will manage to pleasantly surprise the world,'' said Athens Mayor Dora Bakoyianni, who has appealed to residents to spruce up their buildings and stop littering.

Projects such as the meddlesome roof over the main Olympic stadium, a state-of-the art Olympic village, media centers, roads, footpaths, upgraded train stations and a suburban rail have made stunning progress over the past few months.

Even the troubled marathon route is coming along.

''We control things. The venues are almost ready,'' Fani Palli-Petralia, the deputy culture minister coordinating Olympic preparations, told The Associated Press. ''Now we (must) work very hard with the landscaping and the greening.''

But no one in Athens is popping champagne just yet. The loose ends are evident in nearly every venue.

At the main Olympic stadium, for example, the steel-and-glass canopy roof was put in place this month to the huge relief of organizers. The roof still has to get painted and outfitted with carbon panels and lights and cables hung for the opening ceremony Aug 13. Only 8,000 of the 75,000 stadium seats have been installed.

Piles of rubble rim the stadium and workers have yet to start the landscaping that includes trees, flowers, grass and a pedestrian footpath. Some plant experts say it's already too late in the season and the greenery may quickly wilt in the summer sun.

Around the city, a dozen Olympic information kiosks are just getting under way. Multilingual signs at bus stops are rare.

Over at the command and control center of the Greek police, officials are waiting for the end-of-June installation of the electronic system that will be the eyes and ears of 70,000 security personnel expected to patrol the games.

Greece is spending an overwhelming $1.22 billion for security, about 50 times more than Atlanta and five times more than Sydney, Palli-Petralia said.

''Everything had changed after Sept. 11. So, of course, we had delays in security because it was difficult for mankind and the experts all over the world to decide really what was needed,'' Palli-Petralia said. ''The whole plan of security had to be enhanced.''

The complex security network, called C4I, is being set up by a consortium led by San Diego-based Science Applications International Corp. Palli-Petralia said the group has begun work inside venues.

''The security company is already in all the venues and people are working. The C4I is very close to being ready,'' Palli-Petralia said. ''From July 1, when the Olympic security starts, Greece is going to be the most safe place in the world.''

But once the games are over, Greece may be broke.

The price tag for the 35 venues to accommodate 28 sporting events has skyrocketed to $6.8 billion, and many observers expect the costs to escalate even more.

''The Greeks will have to take a long look at this after the games. One thing is certain: The overshot budget was not made by the IOC because we have always insisted on low-key installations,'' Rogge said. ''So they can't come to us now and look us in the eye and say the games are too expensive.''

Palli-Petralia, whose New Democracy party ousted the long-serving Socialists in March elections, said the Greeks will not be taxed to pay off loans. Officials are looking for ways to have the new venues produce income by staging international sporting events and renting them to local teams.

''The last 60 days all the problems must be solved. There is no more room anymore to leave it for the next year,'' said Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, chief 2004 organizer said.

But the problems Athens faced has changed the way the IOC will organize games in the future. Rogge said future candidates will be judged by whether ''the maximum infrastructure'' is already in place.

''Athens was a very difficult city to live in the last three years,'' Bakoyianni said. ''It will be a wonderful city in September.''

That's after everyone goes home. The games end Aug. 29.

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