- The Washington Times - Friday, August 13, 2004

ATHENS — A scraggly sapling inches skyward outside this city’s main Olympic stadium, springing from a patch of sun-baked Aegean soil. The mind boggles: This could be the same clod trod underfoot by Aristotle, the same dust inhaled by Homer so many eons ago.

Then again, it may just be a pile of hastily shoveled dirt.

Returning to the place of their ancient birth and modern revival, the Athens Olympics open tonight, a homecoming marked by fitful preparations, grave security concerns and slapdash finishing strokes.

“Athens is ready,” said Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, president of the Athens Olympic Organizing Committee. “We’re writing a new chapter in Olympic history and Greek history. With these games, Athens wanted to show the world a modern face.”

Modernity — in the form of the world’s largest do-it-yourself project — is everywhere. In the last two weeks alone, welders have touched up the swimming and basketball stadiums, two of 35 venues that will host competitions. Sod has been laid in the Olympic village, home to 16,000 athletes and officials. Crews have painted the artificial turf in Panathinaiko Stadium, a marble edifice first restored for the 1896 Games and now used for archery and the finish of the marathon race.

On the 210 kilometers of new and expanded highways running in and around Athens, most of the cement seems freshly poured. Roadside decoration consists of parched terraces, crisscrossed by black irrigation tubing and infant trees strapped to planting posts.

The spartan motif extends to the primary stadium complex, where a thin layer of sediment coats recently paved parking lots.

“We wanted to make a connection with the ancient Games,” Miss Angelopoulos-Daskalaki said.

By design or sheer necessity, the bare-bones landscaping qualifies as a marked improvement. Three months ago, the area outside Olympic Stadium was a cratered moonscape, dotted with debris and gnarled metal. Workmen labored around the clock, making up for lost time: After winning the right to host the Games in 1997, Greece dithered for three years, prompting a stern rebuke from the International Olympic Committee.

Today, the harsh words are all but forgotten. IOC president Jacques Rogge called the Olympic village the “best one I’ve seen.” The oft-ridiculed main stadium roof looks lovely. The city’s revamped mass transit system, a collection of new subway and tram lines, is handling nearly a million passengers a day.

Around Athens, colorful building shrouds and roadside banners proclaim “welcome home.” Even the graffiti-strewn construction sites down the road from the main Olympic press building have been papered over.

“I was here in 2001 and at the time, to be honest, I didn’t think they’d be ready,” said Greco-Roman wrestler Jim Gruenwald, part of an American delegation that hopes to win 100 medals. “But then you get here and they’re fine. They’ve done what they needed to do to get the Games rolling. We got to the village and it looks great. The cafeteria was unbelievable. At least they got the food ready for us.”

To protect the first Summer Olympics since September 11 and the bombings in Madrid, Greece is spending an unprecedented $1.5 billion. Some 70,000 troops, police and emergency workers are on hand, the largest single-event security force in history.

Greece also has received international help, including NATO air surveillance and anti-terror training and counsel from a seven-nation advisory group led by the United States, Britain and Israel. Still, worries remain: In May, three explosions rocked an Athens police station exactly 100 days before the Games.

“Of course as an athlete, you’re concerned,” said U.S. basketball captain Dawn Staley, a three-time Olympian and the American flag bearer for tonight’s opening ceremonies. “The state of the world, there should be some concern. But no U.S. Olympian would be here if everyone around us felt it was unsafe to be here. We all feel like our government and the Greek government will do everything they can.”

Everything they can doesn’t come cheap. Greece expects to spend $7.2 billion on the Games, $1.7 billion more than first estimated. Ticket sales have been sluggish: Of 5.3 million available, only 2.6 million have been sold.

Other anxieties? A Kenyan boxer and two Greek-American baseball players already have been tossed from the Olympics for doping, while ongoing drug investigations hang over the U.S. track squad. Power and phone outages hit Athens last month and threaten to recur.

Last week, the moving tower that holds the Olympic flame cauldron was stuck in place for four days, held up by a 100-foot crane. Any similar boondoggles could overshadow the Games’ more uplifting story lines, including Baltimore swimmer Michael Phelps’ quest for a record eight gold medals and the improbable return of the Iraqi Olympic team.

“Through sports we aim to seize peace,” said Ahmed Al-Samarrai, president of Iraq’s Olympic Committee. “We want to live like the rest of the world. Risk is everywhere: London, New York, Jordan, but here is something completely different. It’s a sport event, a peace event.”

In 1896, a Greek shepherd named Spyridon Louis won the first marathon of the revived Olympics, becoming a national hero. Some 2,400 years earlier, the herald Phidippides ran the same 26.2-mile route between Marathon and Athens to announce a Greek victory over invading Persians. Exhausted, he promptly dropped dead.

With the Games’ hour at hand, Greece hopes its own race to the finish ends more like the former than the latter.

“It’s the top athletic event on the planet,” said Theodoros Zagorakis, captain of the Greek men’s soccer team. “Billions of people will be watching and this is probably the biggest challenge for my country. Greece’s image will be spread all over the world. It has to be the best.”

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