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Olympic Race Against Time

March 06, 2004

After seven years of planning, feuding and working, with barely 159 dawns left before the summer Olympics opens in Athens, 24 of the 39 new athletic venues for the world's oldest games are not yet complete. Oops. According to The Times' Alan Abrahamson, this embarrassing backlog also includes the Olympic stadium where August's opening ceremonies are tied thematically to the vast roof, which does not exist yet.

The Olympics are a fascinating social, political and economic phenomenon that happens to involve athletics. Suggested by the Oracle of Delphi 2,780 years ago as a PR gimmick to interrupt the cycle of wars among Greek city-states with a regular cycle of athletic combat, the Games have ever since been much more than games. They've become global entertainment, construction challenges, economic engines, tourism opportunities, propaganda platforms.

Besides assembling the world's greatest amateur athletes under an idealistic anthem of fellowship, they focus the world's attention on positive achievements for at least 17 days, especially if they increase a certain nation's medal count. The Games have become billion-dollar bonanzas for broadcast empires and enriching opportunities for victorious competitors. Even when confronting judging scandals and banned performance-enhancing stealth drugs, the Games reflect the priorities, dreams, rivalries, conniving, fears and foibles of their times.

This time, the Games also seem to reflect the procrastination and enduring fractiousness of their founding society, a new member of the European Union. Winning, then constructing and executing an Olympics, is, well, an Olympian task that consumes most of a decade. Greece, which opened the Games' modern era in 1896, was granted the 2004 Games in 1997. The home committee then foundered, reorganized and restarted and has been behind ever since.

A new airport is done, but flying is not yet an Olympic sport. According to Abrahamson's recent report, 12 of the 24 incomplete Olympic structures are less than 90% done. New subways have tracks but no operations. Greek officials have yet to even settle on new regulations governing prostitution, which is legal. Another reflection of the times -- security -- will cost $2 million every hour.

Greek and Olympic officials, perhaps with no choice, profess confidence that My Big Fat Greek Olympics will be ready on time. It'll be a close finish, always good for ratings. Oh, one other little wrinkle: Greece holds national elections this weekend. Opposition conservatives could win, meaning an unpredictable political housecleaning starts Monday morning -- with only 157 dawns left.

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