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Tarnished but Still Golden

After delays, glitches, gridlock and terrorism fears, Athens is ready for the Games to begin

August 08, 2004|Mike Penner | Times Staff Writer

It seemed like a good idea at the time, but that was when time was still on Athens' side, back in the summer of '97, long before BALCO and Al Qaeda had moved into the everyday language and the hammer throw had become something harried Greek construction workers did to beat a deadline.

Return the Olympics to Greece?

Where they once belonged?

Where they were born thousands of years ago?

Where they were exhumed, rekindled and reclassified as "the modern Olympics" in 1896?

Those were the questions put to the International Olympic Committee seven years ago in Lausanne, Switzerland, where five cities from three continents made their final pitches to serve as host city for the 2004 Summer Games. If we'd known then what we know now, maybe the world's top athletes would today be headed for Rome or Stockholm or Cape Town -- maybe even Buenos Aires.

But this was pre-Sept. 11 and post-Atlanta '96, and the concept of an Athens Olympics sounded romantic and charming to some IOC members, felt like requisite penance to others and looked like the least offensive option available to a few more.

That, seven long years ago, was the can't-miss equation that won the Games for Athens.

Rome went into the bidding for those games of antiquity as the heavy favorite, but the IOC quickly got its fill of Primo Nebiolo, then the head of the international track and field federation and a key player in the Rome 2004 bid, who pushed Italy's cause with all the subtlety of a javelin in the foot.

Other finalists had problems, quaint in comparison to today's reality, that scared off the IOC. Buenos Aires, it seemed, wouldn't pull it together in time. Cape Town had too much crime. Stockholm offered cool climes, beautiful scenery and modern facilities, but a local anti-Olympic activist group began exploding bombs around the city to protest the 2004 bid.

So, in a decision that would be viewed with no small amount of irony seven years later, the IOC recoiled from threats of disorganization and civil disobedience, seeking the higher safe ground of ... Athens.

Besides, the IOC had already risked the wrath of the Olympic gods by giving the 1996 Summer Games, the centennial modern Games, to Atlanta instead of the birthplace. Barely a year later in Lausanne, the overriding sentiment was: Better not cross them twice.

The crass huckster-fest that was Atlanta '96 embarrassed the IOC, which brought heavy guilt pangs into the chamber where the election for the 2004 Games would be held. It was a modern-day sacrificial altar: Oh, Zeus, we are humbly gathered to apologize for our past transgression and are here now to try to make amends.

So what if Athens still needed to build roads, and stadiums, and a new airport, and a new metro system? Seven years is a long time to get ready. And look -- they'll hold the shotput competition at Olympia. And they'll launch the archery competition inside a stadium that dates back to 330 B.C. And they'll start the marathon in, well, Marathon.

Of course, as we suspected then and know for sure today, seven years isn't the same on the Greek calendar. To put it in American sporting terms, Greek organizers spent the first three years sitting on the ball and the next three regrouping before turning the last year into a two-minute drill.

Reports of construction delays and operational glitches have become so commonplace, the Athens Olympic Organizing Committee has become an all-purpose straight line, with no shortage of punch lines.

ESPN the Magazine recently ran a satirical photo of Olympic sprinters in Athens churning down the stretch while workers labored to finish painting the white lane stripes on the track.

In England, a television commercial hawking potato chips has Greek workers kicking back, savoring the new "Mediterranean"-flavored snack food, while Olympic hurdlers on the track below have to jump over the construction equipment left unattended.

Not so funny are the threats of terrorism during the Games and concerns that Greek security might not be up to the enormous task at hand. Several members of the U.S. men's basketball team, all of them NBA veterans, declined invitations to compete in Athens because of security issues. Lindsay Davenport, 1996 Olympic women's tennis gold medalist, and Serena Williams both expressed concerns about safety in Athens.

Despite some nervousness, Williams will compete in Athens. Davenport, worried about anti-American sentiment in Greece and wanting to rest before the U.S. Open, will not.

"I will tell you, it was an amazing feeling, playing in two countries that absolutely love Americans," said Davenport, who also participated in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. "Walking in the opening ceremonies in Atlanta was the highlight of my professional career, as far as being out there with other American athletes, the crowd going crazy.

"I just don't think it will be the same in Greece."

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