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Athens Passes IOC Muster

Olympics: Inspection team sees need for 'urgency at all levels' but still supports city as host of 2004 Games.


ATHENS — Seeking to quell intensifying speculation about the 2004 Summer Olympics, senior International Olympic Committee officials concluded an inspection trip here with another round of assurances that they are committed to holding the Games in Athens and have no plans to move them elsewhere.

But IOC leadership also warned that the Athens Games will become a reality only if over the next four years the Greeks raise and spend billions of dollars, complete a massive number of large-scale construction projects and sustain a spirit of cooperation between the government and private sector that until very recently has been sorely lacking.

What is most needed, influential Belgian IOC official Jacques Rogge told reporters, is a "sense of urgency at all levels."

He added later: "Don't ask me what will happen 'if.' Because there are so many scenarios."

Rogge's remarks came at the end of a three-day visit by an IOC inspection team. Athens' preparations have been plagued by delay and chaotic arrangements since the Greek capital was awarded the Games in 1997.

Seven months ago, IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch said the situation in Athens was the worst organizational debacle he'd seen in his 20 years atop the IOC.

Other Olympic officials ticked off concerns over accommodations, traffic, security, communications, construction, venues and infrastructure.

Samaranch said then he expected "drastic changes" by the end of 2000.

An inspection team--which the IOC calls a "coordination commission"--arrived to assess the situation in advance of a Dec. 12-13 meeting by the IOC's ruling Executive Board in Lausanne, Switzerland. Rogge heads the commission; he also led the IOC's coordination commission for the successful Sydney Games.

The IOC has never taken the Games away from a city. Denver turned the 1976 Winter Games back (the IOC switched to Innsbruck, Austria) and the IOC has canceled Games (1940, 1944) because of war.

In public, senior Olympic officials have spent weeks discounting the possibility of moving the 2004 Games elsewhere. Seoul and Los Angeles are often mentioned as sites that could take the Games on short notice.

Such public declarations, however, must be measured against a current of concern within the Executive Board. "I'm convinced that about half of them want to move the Games" but can't figure out a face-saving way to do so, said one Olympic insider, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Rogge addressed the issue head-on at Friday's news conference: "Let me tell you very clearly. The IOC will stage the Games in Athens and has never--I say, never--had the intention to move them to other places."

He said the "right ingredients" are now in place, including commitment from the "highest levels of the government" and a "strong" leadership team at the private-sector Athens Organizing Committee for the 2004 Games, which is called ATHOC.

Prime Minister Costas Simitis is now directing the government's $3-billion infrastructure investment.

Prodded by Samaranch's comments, Simitis appointed Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, a lawyer who headed the winning bid in 1997, to lead ATHOC, and its $1.7-billion budget. As one of her many IOC admirers described her this week, "She looks like a princess, behaves like a woman and thinks like a man."

This week, Greece's public works minister, Costas Laliotis, announced that five key sports venues--including those for rowing, beach volleyball and baseball--will be ready by January 2004, four months ahead of earlier estimates. The government also intends to lift a long-standing moratorium on new hotel construction, allowing for as many as 8,000 new beds by 2004.

A new subway line opened just a few days ago. A new airport is due to open in a few months.

For its part, ATHOC recently announced a $50-million sponsorship deal with the Greek telecommunications firm OTE.

Samaranch, asked in a telephone interview Friday if the Executive Board will now issue an unequivocal endorsement of Athens, replied: "The Executive Board of the International Olympic Committee will fully support the position of the coordination commission presided over by Jacques Rogge."

Such plain talk should seem to guarantee that the Games will open as scheduled in Athens on Aug. 13, 2004. But in the world of IOC diplomacy, often dominated by personality politics, it ensures only that the situation will remain as is and uncertain at least through July 2001--when Samaranch is due to step down and the IOC will elect a new president.

Despite the scolding he delivered in April, Samaranch has been a strong supporter of Athens--believing it can deliver a unique Olympics mixing sports, culture and history.

Respect for Samaranch is widespread on the Executive Board, so--even if Greek officials were somehow to miss every deadline imaginable between now and July--it's unlikely any dramatic action would be taken before then out of respect for the longtime president.

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