- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 11, 2003

NICOSIA, Cyprus — This is “the race against the clock,” a time of trial and of considerable torment for Hellenes from Attica in the Greek heartland to their eastern Mediterranean bastion on Cyprus.

Delays and other ups and downs in the preparations for the 2004 Athens Olympics have added to the challenges and doubts about the future of the games.

At stake are the pride of an ancient nation and an investment of more than $5 billion, which has transformed parts of Athens and its vicinity into hives of construction activity and chaos.

A series of mishaps during the August trial runs, nagging questions in the international press about frequent and continuing organizational problems and the security situation have created tensions, some of them serious.

Criticism of security arrangements voiced recently in the United States and Britain caused a sharp rebuke from the Greek authorities. There were hints that foreign interests were trying to undermine confidence in Greece’s ability to handle the games.

Claims regarding organizational difficulties and security problems “have no basis in reality,” said government spokesman Christos Protoppapas, adding “there are interest groups that think they can pressure us. Of course, we ignore them. We are moving forward, and will host the safest games ever.”

The concentration of athletes, the phalanxes of backup personnel and the expected presence of some 4 million spectators expected for the 17-day Olympic Games next August are likely to paralyze Athens and strain the country’s resources beyond anything experienced before.

The 2004 Olympiad is the first such gathering since the devastating terrorist raids on the United States on September 11, 2001. Athens is only a short flight from the Middle East. The permanently nagging question is whether the Greeks can prevent the games from becoming a disaster.

Greek officials in charge of the games consider them as a major “transforming event, the pivot and catalyst for a new national and international image, modernity and prosperity.”

Foreign participants are worried about security in a country that, until a few years ago, was considered by the United States to be “one of Europe’s weakest links” in the struggle against terrorism.

Things have improved since, but not to everyone’s satisfaction. Periodically, foreign critics voice doubts about Greek assurances of success.

To Gianna Angelopoulo-Daskalaki, head of the Athens Organizing Committee (Athos), “Everything is on track. We know exactly where we are. This country has a unique chance to be reintroduced to the rest of the world.”

Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), said: “Athens will be ready for the games, even if at the last minute.”

And, commenting on security, he added: “I believe that everything humanly possible has been done on this issue, but no one can provide 100 percent guarantees concerning the security issue for any occasion.”

Although the recent statements have been more positive than those of Mr. Rogge’s predecessor — Juan Antonio Samaranch — who described the preparations in 2001 “the worst organizational crisis” of his 20-year tenure, some Greek newspapers continue to warn about a possible national disaster.

The influential Athens Kathimerini daily recently opined: The organizers “must quickly tackle all issues that threaten to torpedo next year’s games, resulting in this country’s humiliation.”

Said Denis Oswald, chairman of the IOC’s Olympic Coordination Commission: “Our assessment is certainly more positive than last spring. But we cannot tolerate any slippages.”

The mixture of optimism and caution has added to the national trauma in a country where the games originated in 776 B.C. and where they were revived in modern times in 1896.

But all that was before international terrorism, mass tourism and invasions of modern media accompanied such events. The 1972 massacre of 11 Israeli athletes in Munich and the bomb explosion at the July 1996 Atlanta Games are still very much on everyone’s mind.

But at this writing, the organizing authorities were still dragging their feet on a $280- million contract with an international U.S.-led consortium to build a central security command post and communications network.

Seven countries, including the United States and Israel, are helping Greek authorities cope with the problem of a magnitude that has stunned many organizers.

Giorgos Floridis, Greece’s minister of public order, is hastily revamping the police structure, particularly since during the past year the Attica region around Athens was plagued by some 100 bank robberies.

Banks have been ordered to install adequate security systems and the critical Greek press pointed out that while some police stations are undermanned, some 3,000 officers are assigned to guard former Cabinet ministers, prominent journalists, businessmen and even some television presenters.

Special anti-terrorist units have been training to cope with such novel threats as chemical and bacteriological attacks. Subway cars may be equipped with protective masks.

The massive arrival of spectators and Olympic personnel is a nightmare in itself.

So far, 4.2 million potential spectators have bought tickets. Athletes and official members of the teams total 15,500 persons, the media personnel including cameramen and television contingents number 21,600 more.

Since hotels in Athens and its vicinity cannot possibly cope with such an influx, an appeal has been issued to the inhabitants of Athens to offer hospitality in their apartments.

In addition to 90,000 contract workers recruited in Greece, the organizers are seeking 45,000 unpaid volunteers. So far 110,000 candidates have offered their services and remain to be vetted.

The tension accompanying the preparations is expected to be accentuated by next year’s planned parliamentary elections. The opposition New Democracy Party has already accused the socialist government of Prime Minister Kostas Simitis of bungling the organization of the games and exceeding the budget. Early opinion polls predict a socialist defeat.

A particularly delicate issue was the request by several countries to allow their teams to bring their own bodyguards. Eventually, the Greek authorities agreed — specifying that such guards will be treated as tourists and must remain unarmed.

“All teams will be adequately protected by a comprehensive games security plan and subject to Greek law while on Greek territory,” an official statement said.

Considerable criticism was leveled at the organization of transportation to ferry the athletes, their backup personnel and spectators to various sites constructed around Athens.

Fani Dimou-Koutroumba, transportation-coordination manager, estimated that every day of the games, some 350,000 spectators and 110,000 members of the “Olympic Family” will move through Athens.

“The Olympic Family will travel in special buses while other vehicles will be subject to stringent restrictions,” she said.

Critics predict that many of these plans are likely to collapse, that security personnel might need nights and Sundays off, and that the arrangements for various Olympic motorcades are “totally unrealistic.”

“The organizing committee should draw up plans based on more realistic estimates,” said Yiannis Golias, a professor in Athens. “If it continues to treat the issue so optimistically, it may never deal with it.”

Much of the foreign criticism of the preparations was based on a series of mishaps during the August trial period, when gale-force winds thwarted a test rowing competition, teams from Ukraine and South Korea got separated from their coaches, who could not find their hotels, and one-fourth of the volunteers hired for the occasion quit because of faulty transportation arrangements.

And then the unpredictable occurred: The German rowing team was prevented from competing because of an outbreak of salmonella in their hotel.

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