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ATHENS | 2004 Opening Ceremony, Tonight, 8 PDT, Channel

Home at Last

After much anticipation, the Games return to their ancient birthplace

August 13, 2004|Alan Abrahamson | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — The 2004 Summer Games open officially today amid unrelenting security concerns, testing a $1.5-billion plan that involves 70,000 Greek police and soldiers, and gadgets such as a blimp loaded with cameras that can peer down into this ancient city, transformed for the Olympics into a thoroughly modern European capital.

As the Olympic flame made its way late Thursday to the Acropolis, the icon of ancient Greece, officials said they knew of no threat to the Games.

In the city below -- crisscrossed by new highways and subway lines, the landscape dotted with dozens of new sports palaces -- officials readied for tonight's opening ceremony, which is expected to tell television viewers worldwide a tale tying modern Greece to ancient times.

Meanwhile, in early action from the soccer tournament, which traditionally kicks off before the opening ceremony, the Iraqi men's team defeated Portugal on Thursday, 4-2, in a major upset.

Then, in a bizarre sequence that kept unfolding into the early-morning hours, two of Greece's top sprinters, 2000 Olympic medalists Costas Kenteris and Katerina Thanou, missed a doping test. The International Olympic Committee announced an inquiry.

After midnight, Greek officials announced the pair were in a hospital after a traffic accident, but said the injuries were not serious.

Events involving the two sprinters created unexpected controversy amid anticipation in Athens and elsewhere in Greece for the opening ceremony, which will include athletes representing 202 nations, the most ever.

Basketball star Dawn Staley, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, will carry the U.S. flag into Olympic Stadium.

"It's a fairy tale that somehow ended up in my lap and I will do it proudly and honorably," she said.

Even without an articulated risk, security remained at the forefront for many of the 10,500 athletes due to take part in the Games.

In recent months, Staley said, she had called her teammates on the U.S. women's basketball team, in part to see whether anyone wanted to back out because of security fears. No one did, she said.

"Of course, as an athlete, you're concerned. The state of the world -- you're concerned," Staley said, adding, "We will press on and do what we came here to do."

The U.S. women's team is favored to win a third straight gold medal.

Asked repeatedly at a news conference Thursday about security issues, Herman Frazier, head of the U.S. delegation, said, "We feel extremely well protected."

Added Jim Scherr, chief executive of the U.S. Olympic Committee, "We feel very, very comfortable in this environment."

The U.S. intends to field the largest team here -- 538 athletes -- as it aims to win 100 medals. Four years ago at Sydney it led the medal count with 97.

Mindful of sentiments around the world, pro-American and not, in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, USOC officials have stressed to the U.S. delegation the need to be both "proud and respectful," as Peter Ueberroth, the chairman of the USOC board, put it.

The goal, added Frazier, is to be "solid citizens and good guests."

The U.S. team, meantime, arrived under a cloud of suspicion linked to the most far-reaching doping scandal in American Olympic history. Since Jan. 1, 14 track athletes have been sanctioned by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. Others, including sprinter-long jumper Marion Jones, remain under investigation.

Jones qualified for the long jump at the U.S. track and field trials. On Thursday, U.S. track and field coaches said she would also compete in the 400-meter relay at Athens.

Dick Pound, a longtime International Olympic Committee member and head of the Montreal-based World Anti-Doping Agency, said Thursday of Jones, "If she's innocent, she comes here and that's fine. And if she's not and comes here and has made all those statements, it's going to be a dark and deep hole into which she goes. It would be a shame."

He also said, "I think the leadership within USA Track & Field has been largely responsible for this problem getting as bad as it has, and they're going to have to look very carefully at their own house. I think that they have demonstrated over the past few years there is a very serious problem, and it is a sleazy thing."

Jill Geer, USATF spokeswoman, responded, "USATF and its leadership have always taken anti-doping very seriously. If it was in the power of our leadership to control the individual choices of each individual who runs track and field, we would be able to eradicate doping from our sport -- which unfortunately we aren't able to do."

She added that the federation was serious about a zero tolerance philosophy, saying, "Cheating is wrong and if you dope, you will be caught and punished."

Also Thursday, International Olympic Committee officials praised the Greek government and Athens organizers for delivering the promised web of transit infrastructure and sports facilities.

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