- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 26, 2002

ATHENS, Greece (AP) The electronic clock counting down to the 2004 Summer Olympics drops to fewer than 900 days today.

But the real measure of the preparations the anxiety level climbs ever higher as the days tick off.

With the Salt Lake City flame extinguished, the return of the Games to their ancient birthplace becomes the priority for the International Olympic Committee.

The home stretch might be as tense as the lost years since Athens was awarded the Games in 1997. What the IOC hoped would be a glorious homecoming has become a nerve-fraying scramble to overcome construction delays, solve logistical headaches and calm outbursts from Greek officials under pressure from the committee.

These are the typical problems of almost every major project undertaken in the European Union's poorest nation. This time, however, they're being played out on an Olympic scale.

"We really have to keep pressure on Athens because, of course, they are more delayed and they still have more problems to resolve than Sydney at the same time," said Denis Oswald, Athens' top IOC coordinator.

Work has begun on some of the long-delayed venues. The IOC, which plans its next Athens inspection in April, has been pleased to see construction finally under way.

The main IOC worries have shifted to other issues particularly a glaring shortage of hotel space. Nearly 3,000 more rooms are needed for the Olympic family sports federation officials, sponsors and others involved in the Games.

Cruise ships have already been promised as floating hotels for VIPS, but it's doubtful nearby ports can handle any more vessels. But the hotel shortfall raises questions about whether many spectators will be effectively shut out from the Athens area.

Residents, meanwhile, continue to fight against Olympic intrusions in their neighborhoods. They have filed injunctions with the highest administrative court, the Council of State, to stop construction, holding up progress of several Olympics-related facilities.

In a victory for the government, the court recently approved construction of the 5,000-seat weightlifting venue in the western suburb of Nikea.

Some of the stiffest opposition comes from the seaside areas of Paleo Faliron and Hellenikon, where the proposed tram will tear up one of the city's last boardwalks. Many venues are to be built at the old airport in Hellenikon, but delays in clearing the airstrip of planes has stalled construction.

Premier Costas Simitis called for Athenians to be patient.

"I want to invite all our fellow citizens, who today are hassled by these works, to have patience, to have understanding and to back this collective effort," Simitis said while touring an interchange that will connect two main avenues in an effort to ease Athens' chronic traffic problems.

Also yesterday, Olympic organizers issued a commemorative pin and unveiled a floral display to mark the 900-day countdown to the Games, Aug. 13-29, 2004. A new pin will be released every 100 days.

The flower arrangement 2,000 chrysanthemums adorned the entrance to the all-marble stadium where the first modern Olympics were held in 1896.

Organizers of the 2004 Olympics spent time in Salt Lake City to gain more first-hand experience about staging the Games. Today, the 2004 team plans to move its headquarters from central Athens to larger facilities in a converted garment factory in a northwestern suburb.

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