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The Buzz in Athens Still Just a Whisper

Low turnouts and scandals (doping and judging) make Games less than sensational.

August 22, 2004|Tracy Wilkinson and Greg Krikorian | Times Staff Writers

ATHENS — Nine days ago, Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, president of the Athens Olympics organizing committee, defied the doubters and triumphantly opened the 2004 Summer Games. In the globally televised extravaganza, dancers and athletes celebrated the inauguration of the world's largest sporting event under a mammoth Olympic torch.

The next night, Angelopoulos-Daskalaki had to explain the lighting of another torch: At a gala party at her mansion, her private fireworks display went awry and set the neighboring hillside on fire. Seventy-five firefighters battled the blaze for more than an hour before they brought it under control.

The Greek media had a field day as the government launched an investigation and the Olympics maven issued an apology.

Angelopoulos-Daskalaki's pyrotechnics have become a metaphor for what people in Greece view as very troubled Olympics.

Greece, which has so much riding on the successful completion of the Games, seems to take one step forward, two steps back. Just when it scores a victory, such as finishing construction of the Olympic sporting venues, stadiums and gyms at the last minute and against the odds, something goes wrong.

And much has gone very wrong -- but not in the ways that many expected.

Security and the threat of terrorism were supposed to be the big problems, but thus far there have been no major incidents. Instead, doping scandals involving Greek athletes, judging controversies and the failure of crowds to show up have plagued the Games.

Perhaps the most irreparable damage to the Games from the local point of view was the withdrawal of Greece's two top athletes amid a doping scandal.

Just as Greeks were beginning to bask in the glory of the Games coming off as planned, star runners Costas Kenteris and Katerina Thanou missed a drug test Aug. 12, went to a hospital saying they had been in a motorcycle accident, emerged six days later and, rather than face a disciplinary hearing, said they were leaving competition for the good of their country.

The shame, anger and disbelief cannot be overstated. And Greeks are reminded of the loss every day: Huge billboards with pictures of Kenteris and Thanou, erected before the scandal, are on view throughout the city; their faces also grace phone cards, preprinted magazine ads and Olympic literature.

Just as Greeks were perhaps starting to recover from that blow, their champion weightlifter, Leonidas Sampanis, tested positive for banned drugs and faced the prospect of being stripped of his bronze medal.

"We had an opportunity to show the world a new Greece," a Greek government official said. "But the scandals have taken away from that

The wider Olympic "family," as participants and fans call themselves, was also hit Saturday by controversies that included the suspension of three judges for a mistake in scoring that resulted in American Paul Hamm's winning the men's all-around gymnastics final, and another judging error in which two equestrian gold medals were taken away from Germany.

Dismay over the Greek performances may have contributed to low turnout at sports venues, although the numbers still may pick up. Some Greeks stayed away from the Games because they wouldn't be able to see Kenteris. General disinterest in more esoteric Olympic sports such as badminton and equestrian dressage, as well as "Olympics fatigue," may have kept others from attending.

Tourism is also 50% below projections, said Yiannis Evangelou, president of the Hellenic Assn. of Travel and Tourism Agencies.

Foreign sports fans have stayed away in part because of safety fears.

During years of preparation for the Games, Greece's notoriously porous border and lax immigration controls, coupled with a history of anti-American sentiment, exacerbated concerns for the safety of athletes and spectators in the first Summer Olympics since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

At this middle point of the Games, however, there has been little significant trouble. The only deaths have been from traffic accidents, and suspicious packages at a post office and the airport contained after-shave lotion and crackers.

Greece has spent more than $1.5 billion on security, deployed 70,000 police and military personnel, installed hundreds of surveillance cameras throughout Athens and called on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization for security assistance. A network of spy equipment monitors the activities of athletes, vendors and citizens.

At this point, some officials involved for months in protecting the Games see the peace as somewhat eerie.

"Nothing is happening," a U.S. official said Saturday. "It's almost too quiet."

Greece's defense minister, Spilios Spiliotopoulos, said he was satisfied with the peaceful evolution of the Games thus far. He said the armed forces were unaware of a significant, specific threat.

"Nobody's relaxing," he said during a lunch Thursday for foreign journalists. "But right now we are collecting more medals than terrorists."

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