- The Washington Times - Monday, August 9, 2004

ATHENS — The scene seemed tranquil at first. Just after dawn, sunlight struck the steel arches supporting the gleaming roof of the Olympic stadium, the masterpiece of an event that once seemed destined never to be ready on time.

Beneath the massive structure, though, another scene so familiar to Athenians was playing out as temperatures began to rise.

There, crews were pouring cement, planting shrubs, dabbing paint and building tile walkways. The sound of hammering was in the air, and in the stands a solitary worker swept one of the 75,000 seats in preparation for Friday’s opening ceremony.

Dust caked the seats and everything else, while workers in small trucks sent even more of it billowing into the air as they raced from job to job. Just outside the stadium entrance, a yard filled with idle heavy machinery testified to work already done.

Only days before the Athens Olympics, organizers insist the city is ready. They point proudly to the impressive main stadium, the deep-blue swimming complex and other spanking-new facilities that have sprouted in various corners of the city.

Much was left undone in the city’s frantic race to the finish. Plans were changed, landscaping was cut back and the roof was left off the swimming pool.

Still, what many critics considered impossible as little as a year ago suddenly has become reality — venues are mainly finished, roads are open and trains and subways are running.

“Everything is ready. Greece is finally realizing this giant accomplishment,” said deputy Culture Minister Fani Palli-Petralia, who coordinated Olympic preparations.

Well, not quite everything. Construction companies still were finishing up Olympic projects — from suburban rail stations to massive highway interchanges leading to venues in the city’s seaside suburbs.

Organizers were confident there would be no problems.

“Venues are ready. Our people are ready,” Athens organizing committee chief Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki said after meeting yesterday with the International Olympic Committee. “The tram, the suburban rail and Olympic lanes are working. The athletes of the world are training in our facilities.”

That must come as a surprise to the IOC. Less than a year ago, there was no tram running from central Athens, no suburban rail line connecting the city to its airport. Some highways with Olympic lanes for official traffic were not yet built, and many sports facilities were far from completion.

The new suburban rail’s Olympic stadium stop, which also connects the line to the rest of the metro and tram network, was built in less than three months.

“I can describe this project with just two words: mammoth and express,” said Mihalis Liapis, Greece’s harried-looking transport minister.

Seven years and many delays since being awarded the Games, Athens seems to have made the most out of its second wind.

“People couldn’t imagine that in six months or one year there is such a difference,” Angelopoulos-Daskalaki said.

In recent days, surprised smiles have replaced frowns on the faces of many disbelieving Athenians. For years they have had to live with construction projects slowing traffic and causing sleepless nights.

Athens today bears little resemblance to the city that three years ago prompted a despairing IOC president Jacques Rogge to plead: “We want buildings to start coming out of the ground because without them we can’t have the Games.”

At the time, most of the multilane highway that now connects Athens’ new airport to the Olympic stadium was a stretch of dirt, while the 8,000-seat wrestling arena was still an olive grove where sheep grazed.

Even the showcase steel-and-glass roof for the main Olympic Stadium, designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, existed only on paper.

Athens’ race to finish, though, will be felt by Greeks long after the Games.

The total price tag for the Olympics has grown in the last two years from $5.5billion to more than $7.2billion. Some analysts predict the final cost could climb to $12.5billion. A record $1.5billion is being spent on security alone.

Rogge, returning to Athens this week, finally looked relaxed as he joined ministers in various ribbon-cutting ceremonies.

“I discovered a new city,” Rogge said.

He probably would agree with Greek President Costis Stephanopoulos, who seemed prophetic when he said three years ago: “There are complaints, but we will succeed. We will manage the Greek way — at the last minute.”

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