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Ready for Its Grand Opening

With the first events underway, city officials proclaim Athens prepared to deliver on its promise of an Olympics that melds the mythic and the modern.

August 12, 2004|Helene Elliott | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — While organizers declared the city prepared to stage the Summer Games and welcomed the Olympic flame on the final leg of its global journey, workers scrambled Wednesday to put the finishing touches on venues and U.S. track and field officials hastened to adjust the team's roster after losing a potential medalist to a drug-related ban.

Two days before the opening ceremony, areas of the Olympic Aquatic Complex were strewn with nails, dust, exposed wires and construction debris. At the Helliniko Olympic Complex -- the site of fencing, basketball, softball, baseball, field hockey and the canoe/kayak slalom center -- water fountains were being installed and visitors roamed freely with little apparent enforcement of the Games' record $1.5-billion security plan.

Nonetheless, Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, president of the Athens 2004 organizing committee, said Athens had finished its expensive and sometimes tortured task and was "writing a new chapter in Olympic history."

"Athens is ready," she said at a news conference. "The city is painted in its Olympic colors. Our venues are ready. The athletes are training in their venues. Traffic is moving rapidly throughout the city.... What we promised, we delivered."

Organizers had little choice but to be ready because play began in the soccer tournament, highlighted by the U.S. women's 3-0 victory over Greece at Crete.

Hours earlier, the flame arrived in Athens -- as did the Queen Mary 2, one of eight ships that will accommodate politicians, dignitaries and other visitors during the Olympics.

While athletes and spectators flocked toward Athens, Serena Williams pulled out of the Olympic tennis tournament. She cited an injured left knee for her decision, which came a day after 1992 gold medalist Jennifer Capriati withdrew because of a sore hamstring.

In another blow to U.S. medal hopes, sprinter Torri Edwards lost her spots in the 100 and 200 meters when she was suspended from competition for two years because of a positive test for the banned stimulant nikethamide. If her appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport is not successful, she will be replaced in the 100 by two-time 100-meter gold medalist Gail Devers and in the 200 by LaShaunte'a Moore, who finished fourth at the U.S. trials and was part of the relay pool.

The flame was carried from Marathon to Athens, where it will end a nearly 50,000-mile journey Friday and reside in the caldron that will burn throughout the Games. Its physical and symbolic presence will figure prominently in the opening ceremony, a 3 1/2 -hour extravaganza that will honor Greece's mythic past while portraying the country as modern and forward-looking. The show will blend high-tech innovations with music, dance and water-related tableaux that play on the nation's seagoing history.

Dimitris Papaioannou, concept creator and artistic director of the opening ceremony, said that 4,000 singers, dancers and actors would bring to life several key themes. Among them are a tribute to the Greek god Eros, a segment welcoming the Olympic flame as "a light of peace" and a section he said will represent "an allegoric journey of the evolution of human consciousness."

He added, "The ceremony in general was inspired by [the idea of] the Games on a human scale, and it was decided from the start that it would be about the art and history of Greece, describing Greek history through a highly contemporary point of view."

One scene will include images of the ancient Olympic stadium and the new stadium, which will hold a sellout crowd of 70,000 people Friday. Another part of the ceremony will feature as its central theme the motifs of the human heartbeat, to represent the individual aspect of each athlete, and of running, a sport in the ancient Olympics.

A commemoration of the 1896 Athens Games -- the first of the modern era -- also will be part of the show. The torch's journey leading up to these Games will be recapped, Papaioannou said, "attempting to elevate it into a spiritual level symbolizing the flame with the light of peace and the unison of people."

The athletes' entrance, to music produced by Dutch-born DJ Tiesto, "Is the most important moment of our ceremony," Papaioannou said. Angelopoulos-Daskalaki described the entrance as "a real parade for young people, that they are ready to start this unique journey for them."

Organizers wouldn't say how much the ceremony is projected to cost but said they would offer a figure afterward.

They also said ticket sales, which had been lagging, had exceeded 2.6 million and were picking up daily. Michalis Zacharatos, general manager of communications for the Athens organizing committee, said the committee had budgeted for ticket sales of 183 million Euros (about $224 million), which he said would mean 3.1 million to 3.4 million tickets sold.

At the swim complex, which is expected to be one of the most popular venues, the scoring computers weren't working but the stadium scoreboard was functioning Wednesday, flashing messages in Greek and English that said, "Recycle plastic bottles. We can do it!" and "Please dispose your litter in the appropriate bin."

However, at least one key task had been accomplished: the pool was filled.

Times staff writer Mike Penner and Jerry Brewer of the Orlando Sentinel contributed to this report.

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