To emphasize how ready Athens will be for the Olympics next summer, officials like to point out a building for drug testing that has been completed alongside the man-made harbor where the sailing competition will take place. The message: The Greeks are even prepared for steroid-soaked sailors.
Travel down the coast a few kilometers, though, and an arena that will host tae kwon do and handball is still swarming with construction workers. Unconnected wires hang from the roof, and a chilly sea breeze blows through the unfinished walls. A journalist touring the site notes that the arena has to be ready for a preliminary event in March. When, he asks an official of the Public Works Ministry, will it be done? "By March," shrugs the official, dragging on a cigarette.
Welcome to the just-in-time Olympics. After serious startup problems, it looks as though the arenas, as well as the public infrastructure, will be ready for the opening ceremony on Aug. 13, 2004 -- but just barely. That's a big improvement over 2000, when the Greeks had fallen so far behind in planning that the International Olympic Committee seriously considered moving the Games elsewhere. Still, there is little margin for error. "We are working day and night," says Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, president of Athens 2004, the organization in charge of preparations.
Any big screw-ups would be a humiliation for a country that invented the Olympics in 776 B.C. and hosted the first modern Games in 1896. It could also have economic consequences. Greece, still one of the poorest countries in the European Union, is literally remaking itself for the Games in a $5.5 billion effort to attract more tourists and foreign investment. That's not counting the $2.4 billion budgeted for the Games themselves.
So it's crucial for Greece to demonstrate that it doesn't deserve its reputation for being disorganized. "This is the best marketing opportunity the country will have for 100 years," says James Ker-Lindsay, executive director of Civilitas Research, a political consulting firm in Cyprus.
Chronically overcrowded Athens is getting new roads and public transportation. It has improved sewage treatment and rerouted a river to cut pollution in the historic port of Piraeus. There is even a program to neuter and vaccinate the large population of stray dogs. "Athens will be a better city after the Games," says Deputy Mayor Theodore Skylakakis.
A HERCULEAN TASK
Business groups hope for positive aftereffects on the wine, olive oil, and tourists industries. "We want to make Greece into a brand," says Evangelos Penglis, a special adviser to the Economy & Finance Ministry. A Greek diplomat goes even further: He suggests that a successful Olympics will help Greece be seen as a hub for the Balkans.
In retrospect, though, organizers concede that they didn't understand completely what they were getting into when they won the Games in 1997. Organizing the Olympics is a huge task for any nation, but especially for one the size of Greece. With 10.7 million people, it is the smallest country to host the Summer Olympics since Finland in 1952.
Finishing on time remains a Herculean task. Officials are nervous about completing the arched roof of the main Olympic Stadium, a technically challenging design by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava that is supposed to be the Games's signature building. And in mid-November, some stretches of key transportation links -- particularly a rail connection to the new international airport and a tramway that will carry spectators to venues on the coast -- were still under construction. "The work that remains to be done is considerable," warns Denis Oswald, chairman of the IOC's Athens 2004 coordination committee.
National elections in the spring could also complicate preparations. Polls show that the opposition New Democracy Party is likely to defeat the ruling Socialists, which would bring in a new crop of inexperienced government administrators just months before the Games begin.
"WE ARE GOOD AT THE END"
Still, confidence is growing that when the torch is lighted, Athens will be ready. "The question about whether the preparations will be finished arises almost every four years," says Michael Riehl, global head of sports marketing for Adidas (ADDDY ), an Olympic sponsor. And at least some of the preparations are further along than they were at the same point before the Salt Lake City Winter Games in 2002. "We are more advanced on the technology side," says Jean Chevallier, vice-president for marketing at SchlumbergerSema, which is providing high-tech services.
In addition, builders of the Olympic Village, where the athletes will be housed, have overcome initial delays to finish ahead of schedule. And the spotless new Athens subway system, which boasts station walls of polished marble tile, has already accelerated travel within the traffic-clogged city. "Greek people are difficult to organize, but we are good at the end," says Karountzos Vassilios, who operates an Athens newsstand.
"The issue is not construction anymore," argues Costas Cartalis, general secretary for the Olympic Games in the Culture Ministry. "The issue is putting together all the different bits and bytes." Other officials, however, remain concerned that there won't be enough time to test systems, train volunteers, and work out the organizational kinks before the 17-day Olympics go live. The importance of test runs was made abundantly clear last summer when a pre-Olympic event at the controversial rowing and canoeing center in Schinias was buffeted by strong winds that cut short competition.
Perhaps the most enormous worry, however, is security. With its long coastline and proximity to the Middle East, Greece is notoriously difficult to seal off. When Olympic spectators swarm already overcrowded Athens, there will be plenty of hard-to-protect soft targets. That's why the Greeks are importing police officers from the provinces, training volunteers to create a 41,000-strong security force during the Games, and spending big-time. By some estimates, the security bill will top $1 billion, more than three times the cost of protecting the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney.
To deter bombers, Athens will be blocked to truck traffic except during early-morning hours. Officials knowledgeable about security preparations, while careful not to minimize the work that needs to be done, say Greek authorities are working well with a multinational task force that is providing planning help and training. SAIC, a San Diego research and engineering company, has a $277 million contract with the Greek government to help provide security, including "airship surveillance." One official says it is also creating models of possible terrorist attacks.
If the Games are a triumph, much of the credit will likely go to Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, a former member of Parliament with a taste for racy designer fashions and good cigars. She was granted executive authority over the Olympics by Parliament in 2000, and satirists note that her initials, g-a-d, might just as well be g-o-d. Angelopoulos-Daskalaki has used her powers of persuasion to boost local sponsorship from zero when she took charge to $340 million, 43% more than projected, according to the IOC.
The Games are unlikely to be profitable, though, and the Greeks seem unconcerned. They are determined to downplay commercialism, glorify their national identity, and put a more human face on these Olympics. And there is reason to believe they will be memorable.
For one thing, Athens promises to be one of the most photogenic Olympics ever -- and not just because of Angelopoulos-Daskalaki's wardrobe. Cyclists will race around the Acropolis, site of the Parthenon, and other ancient monuments. The Games will climax with a marathon that actually begins in the city of Marathonas and follows the route taken by a Greek soldier who in 490 B.C. delivered news of the victory over the Persians. Alas, according to legend, the messenger then collapsed and died. Greece and the Olympic Movement can only hope for a happier ending.
By Jack Ewing in Athens