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Athletes arrive in Greece

Posted: Thursday, August 05, 2004

GEORGIOUPOLI, Greece A collection of bungalows provide a stunning view of the calm, aqua water of the Mediterranean softly lapping at the sand of the Pilot Beach Resort.

Just behind it are the foothills of the rugged Lefka Ori or White Mountains. Winding roads lead to quaint villages and the caves where, legend has it, the Greek gods were born.

''It's beautiful. This is great,'' marathoner Jen Rhines said. ''It's even better than I think we imagined.''

The U.S. track and field team began arriving Wednesday on the sun-baked island of Crete for a mix of relaxation and training before heading to the Olympics in nearby Athens.

About half of the 531 American athletes have made the trip to Greece so far, looking to defend their spot atop the Summer Games medals table.

On Crete, security is tight, of course, but it's not obtrusive.

Plainclothes Greek police officers were stationed outside a section of the resort on Crete's northern coast. One officer, who wore swimming trunks and carried a handgun beneath his short-sleeved shirt, said there were many more police in the area they just weren't that easy to spot.

Mike Conley, executive director of elite athlete programs for USA Track & Field, chose the location and said about 100 of the 115 members of the U.S. track team will spend time there.

Also arriving Wednesday was the U.S. women's soccer team, fresh from a 3-1 victory over China in East Hartford, Conn., on Sunday.

''It's overwhelming,'' said forward Abby Wambach, in her first Olympics. ''It feels good to finally be here and feel what it's like. We have so many different things and visions in our mind, but nothing compares to the reality of being here.''

The U.S. women, who won the silver medal in Sydney four years ago, will spend only two nights in the not-quite-completed Athletes Village in Athens before they, too, go to Crete. That's where the United States will play its Olympic opener against Greece in Iraklion on Aug. 11 two days before the opening ceremony.

''The village is a little bare right now,'' defender Heather Mitts said, ''but give it a few days, and I am sure it will be what I expected and more.''

Some of the biggest track and field names, including reigning 100-meter gold medalist Maurice Greene, are scheduled to arrive in Crete next week. He and other U.S. stars will compete Friday in Zurich; some others will compete Sunday in Munich, in a meet against Germany and France.

Conley said he didn't know if Marion Jones would attend the camp. Jones winner of an unprecedented five Olympic medals in Sydney but dogged by doping suspicions this year would have to attend the camp if she is to participate in the relays in Athens. Jones only qualified for the long jump, but is eligible for the relay teams.

Workouts are scheduled at a hilltop track near Rethymno, about 10 miles east of the resort. Pole vaulter Stacy Dragila competed in a meet there and suggested the site for the camp, Conley said.

''I came down and saw the track and fell in love with the stadium,'' Conley said. ''It's up high. It overlooks the Mediterranean. You're facing Athens every day you train.''

Greek authorities are in charge of security, but the camp is not far from the Souda Bay naval base, where about 3,000 U.S. military personnel are stationed.

''The U.S. military base was the first thing that brought us to Crete,'' Conley said. ''We want to make sure that the world understands that the Greeks are in charge of security and are capable of security. And I'm comfortable that if we ever needed the support of the United States government, they'll be here.

''One of the things we asked,'' he said, ''is that it would still have a relaxed atmosphere but be safe and secure.''

The camp will remain open through Aug. 18.



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