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Galvanized Athens Set to Ring in the Games

August 02, 2004|Alan Abrahamson | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — With 11 days left until the opening ceremony, the Greek government and Olympic organizers appear to have accomplished what many critics considered beyond their reach: The sports venues are built, the roads are finished, the trains are running, the athletes' village is open and ticket sales are on the uptick.

Moreover, Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, who took over Olympic planning after he assumed office in March, said the Athens Games will be safe from terrorism, or as safe as is "humanly possible."

"Essentially, it's D-day in two weeks' time," Karamanlis, 47, said, shaking a set of red beads as he spoke in his office here last week. "I think that we can send, frankly, a message of confidence -- that despite the initial delays, Athens and Greece [are] prepared to run good and secure Games."

About 70,000 police and soldiers have been assigned to patrol the city, region and Olympic venues. Greek officials now estimate the nation will spend $1.5 billion on security for the Games -- five times what was spent on security at the Sydney Games in 2000.

In recent days, security teams have swept for bombs at sports facilities, then sealed off the sites from unauthorized visitors.

Hundreds of security cameras are positioned throughout greater Athens. A no-fly zone will be imposed over the Olympic venues, though helicopters, a blimp and AWACS surveillance aircraft remain on patrol. Patriot missile sites around Athens have been placed on alert.

Some 200 naval commandos are stationed at Olympic venues. South of central Athens, at the port of Piraeus, a frigate with about 200 sailors is due to stand watch over several cruise ships that will serve as hotels for dignitaries and Olympic officials. Experts from seven nations, including the United States, Britain and Israel, have advised Greek authorities on security for years, and NATO will provide air and sea patrols.

Nations that have provided tactical aid, including the United States, have made tentative plans to send security agents for their delegations. Karamanlis said it is customary for such agents to be armed when escorting foreign political leaders and dignitaries, but he stressed that those escorting athletes would be unarmed.

"Everything is taken care of for the athletes and the visitors and the VIPs to feel secure and be secure," Karamanlis said.

Intelligence officials have said repeatedly in recent weeks that they have received no indication the Games have been targeted for terrorist attack. Concerns endure among some athletes, officials and Olympic fans, however, after terrorist bombings in recent months in Madrid and Istanbul, Turkey.

About 2.2 million, or 42%, of the 5.3 million tickets have been sold. Organizers say sales have recently picked up, to about 12,000 per day.

Foreign arrivals at Greek airports, a basic tourism indicator, are down 6% to 10% this year compared with last, officials said last week.

"The world is different after Sept. 11," Karamanlis said. "One might say that some of the things said or done may border on excessive, exaggeration, sometimes even hysteria. One cannot dismiss a concern, legitimate concern. So the only answer is: Try it. It's secure. All that had to be done has been done."

The prior, socialist government essentially wasted three years after being awarded the Games in 1997. Since 2000, however, there has been a rush to complete roads, subway extensions, tram lines and dozens of sports venues.

The pace has intensified since March, when Karamanlis' conservative New Democracy party was swept into power and he announced that he would personally supervise preparations.

That sent the message to "everybody, not necessarily [solely] in Greece, throughout the world, that we are taking it very seriously," he said.

This spring, Spyros Vlachos, publisher of the Athens magazine Ozon, was glum about prospects for Greece and its Games. Now, he said, Athens is "much more bright. The city is much more clean."

Others, too, have praised the rapid progress.

"Greece has already way surpassed itself in getting this far," John Ross wrote Friday in the English-language version of the Greek newspaper Kathimerini. "Just to travel over the smooth roads, wander in the gleaming new metro stations, see the renovated facades, take a train to the airport ... is to appreciate not just Greek capabilities but performance."

The Olympic Stadium roof, the Games' signature architectural piece, slid into place a few weeks ago. The main entrance now bears a sign that says, in English and Greek, "Welcome Home."

Inside, with the scoreboards and flame caldron now in place, rehearsals went on through the weekend for the Aug. 13 ceremony. But outside, construction debris such as wires, pipes and nails still awaits cleanup.

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