In ancient Athens, a frantic struggle under way to ready for the Olympics

Sports Views

Posted: Friday, July 25, 2003

A stray dog lying in the doorway of a deluxe hotel near the Acropolis had bedded down and was sleeping undisturbed. He didn't even raise a paw when some tourists returned for the night and stepped around him.

Strays now have status in this ancient city, where a planned campaign to rid the streets of roaming animals is just one issue that has paralyzed Athens as it scurries to get things ready for next year's Summer Olympics.

''We do not want the animals incarcerated. Why shouldn't the animals live among us in the streets?'' Athens Deputy Mayor Tonya Kanellopoulou said.

After much debate, a mysterious mass poisoning of 60 dogs in an Athens park and the obligatory series of street protests, the stray roundup was called off. Fido was given a reprieve, and Athens quickly moved on to its next crisis.

Such is the way things are done here, a Greek tendency that encourages dissent, amuses outsiders and scares the daylights out of international Olympic officials who tend to like the kind of disciplined organization that Beijing promises in 2008.

They've long since given up on getting it in Athens, where even issues as mundane as dogs are not easily settled. Today, with little more than a year before the games begin, they're just hoping the Greeks can get their act together long enough to stage an Olympics where most things work.

Organizers say they are doing their best, after a three-year delay while everyone bickered about what should be done and who should be doing it. And there are some encouraging signs as Athens frantically tries to remake the city's transportation system and build a series of sports venues at the same time.

''Greeks are very nervous about the games,'' said Katerina Barbosa, an executive helping build the sprawling athlete's village outside the city. ''They were born here and they don't want to have the worst games ever.''

Still, there's good reason to be jittery. The refurbishment of the main soccer stadium has barely begun, a seaside sports complex at Athens' old Hellinikon airport is behind schedule, the boxing venue is a patch of dirt and pieces of the signature glass and steel roof for the main Olympic stadium are just arriving.

Test events have been pushed back, security remains a concern and there are warnings that unless additional substations are built the power could go out as it often does when Athenians crank up the air conditioners in the summer.

If that's not enough, prostitutes demonstrated in the broiling sun Thursday against government efforts to regulate Greece's legal brothels.

Greek officials insist everything is under control, that their $5 billion gamble will showcase Athens as not only the birthplace of the Olympics and home of the first modern games in 1896 but as a world-class city. But the same officials are in danger of losing elections that will be held by spring, and Greeks grumble about the disruption Olympic preparations are causing.

Still, the Olympic flame will be lit Aug. 13, 2004, the games will begin and they should be rich in imagery cyclists racing through the streets beneath the Acropolis and marathoners following the ancient route from Marathon itself.

Indeed, there's a lot of beauty in Athens, though the city is somewhat frayed on the edges, especially now with construction all around. The Acropolis towers over the city, brilliantly lit at night, and there are ancient ruins and museums everywhere.

But accommodations are minimal, at best, and in short supply, and there's an undercurrent of anti-American sentiment. Security will be costly for a country with porous borders and a homegrown terrorist group called November 17 that authorities claim to have recently broken up.

This week, vehicles jammed the city's streets though many Athenians were away on vacation. Traffic is so bad that cars with license plates ending in even numbers are allowed in downtown Athens one day, and odd numbers the next.

These games aren't likely to go off as flawlessly as did the Sydney Olympics, which Athens has the misfortune to follow. But it could be worse. Athens could have landed the 1996 games it wanted in the first place but lost to Atlanta.

Now, at least they've had eight more years to prepare.

By this time next year, the hookers might even be happy. And the dogs will be sleeping at night without a worry.

Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Assoc-iated Press.

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