ATHENS - Massive support beams buttress towering concrete decks. White guardrails are open to a cloudless blue sky. Empty seats ring the interior, gleaming like pearls in the warm afternoon sun.
Rising from a moonscape of half-laid sidewalks and discarded cement buckets, the Aquatic Center in Athens is a sight to behold. Come August, the stadium will host 11,000 spectators and some of the Summer Olympics’ most compelling action, including Baltimore swimmer Michael Phelps’ quest to match — or surpass — Mark Spitz’s record of seven gold medals in a single Games.
Of course, sports fans hoping to witness history are advised to pack a hat. Sunscreen, too — because though the brand-new facility will boast world-class athletes and plenty of water, it won’t have the roof originally planned for it.
“The swimming will be outdoors,” says Spyros Capralos, general secretary for the Olympic Games at Greece’s Ministry of Culture and a former Olympic water polo player. “It would have put at risk the whole project if we started putting on the roof in March.”
Olympic foul-ups are nothing new. Neither is a lack of shade. The 1996 Atlanta Games were bedeviled by transportation glitches and rampant, chintzy commercialization. Spectators at the sun-blistered Games of antiquity often fell prey to heatstroke.
Still, the al fresco pool at the center of this city’s main Olympic complex is an indicator of the fitful preparations that have marked the Athens Games. Seven years ago, Greece rejoiced at the prospect of an Olympic homecoming; today, organizers are scrambling to complete the job against a backdrop of grave security concerns.
In a city where unfinished Olympic venues rival bustling outdoor cafes for ubiquity, jackhammers thump deep into the night. Traffic snarls on unpaved roads and unassembled tram lines. Across from the Greek Parliament building, fabled Syntagma Square, a popular gathering spot, lies dormant, smothered by scaffolding.
At Panathinaiko Stadium — an ancient marble edifice restored for the Games’ modern revival in 1896 — armed police watch tourists take snapshots of the Olympic flame, keenly aware that Athens, from Aug. 13 to 29, will hold the first Summer Games since September 11, the war in Iraq and bombings in Istanbul and Madrid.
“When we got the Games, the Greek people were very enthusiastic.” Mr. Capralos says. “Then, we realized how difficult it is.”
The blueberry muffins remain untouched. A dozen reporters mill around a meeting room at the Ritz-Carlton in downtown Washington. Giorgos Voulgarakis, Greece’s minister of public order, is discussing Olympic safety.
“Security remains our first priority, our top priority,” he says. “We can assure that nothing will disturb this scheduled Olympic Games.”
Mr. Voulgarakis draws three concentric circles on a sheet of scrap paper, one for each layer of Olympic protection. An impressive bit of doodling, to be sure. But scribbling alone won’t protect the Games. Not from dirty bombs, chemical agents, loose sticks of dynamite in unattended backpacks.
As Munich and Atlanta illustrate, the ancient Olympic truce offers little modern comfort. And though the International Olympic Committee conceivably could have selected a less-secure location than Athens — like, say, Baghdad — the city faces a Herculean task.
The Sydney and Salt Lake City Olympics enjoyed relative geographic isolation. Greece is saddled with a large, open coastline, porous borders with its Balkan neighbors and proximity to the tinderbox Middle East.
The latter point is especially troubling. Coming on the heels of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and warnings that al Qaeda is planning a major strike, the Olympics cap a summer of high-profile, bull’s-eye events: a NATO summit in Istanbul, the G-8 summit in Sea Island, Ga., and the upcoming presidential conventions.
“The bar has been raised a bit for these Games,” says Larry Buendorf, a former Secret Service agent and the chief security officer of the United States Olympic Committee (USOC).
Homegrown terror is another possibility. In 1944, Winston Churchill nixed a visit to Athens after dynamite was found in the cellar of the Grande Betagne hotel. As recently as five years ago, the State Department ranked Greece second to Colombia in anti-American terror attacks, leading L. Paul Bremer, then-chairman of the U.S. National Commission on Terrorism, to call for an arms embargo of the country.
Greece’s dismal reputation stemmed largely from the presence of 17 November, a leftist terror group that for decades waged an assassination campaign against foreign and Greek officials, including the husband of current Athens Mayor Dora Bakoyannis. Late last year, Greek authorities convicted 15 members of the group of 19 murders and thousands of crimes committed between 1982 and 2000.
While Greek officials point to those sentences as behind-bars proof of newfound terror toughness, skeptics question why police needed 27 years to make the initial arrests against an outfit that first drew blood in 1975.
“We were lucky [to catch them],” Mrs. Bakoyannis says. “They were a small group, very dedicated, always targeting their victims. So, for a long time, they were able to get away.”
To protect about 2 million Olympic visitors, Greece will field a security force three times larger than the ones deployed in Sydney and Salt Lake City: 70,000 troops, police and emergency personnel, roughly seven security workers per athlete.
The Greek umbrella calls for tightened coastal and border patrols, no-fly zones around venues and a $320 million command-and-control system featuring 1,400 surveillance cameras in and around Athens. At the city’s Port of Piraeus, commandos and motion detectors will team with helicopters and NATO warships to defend 13,000 Olympic VIPs bunking aboard eight cruise ships, including the Queen Mary 2.
Overall, Greece expects to spend a Games-record $1.2 billion on security, nearly four times the budget in Sydney. “We have spent much more money than we could afford,” Mr. Voulgarakis says.
Greece also has sought international help, including antiterror training and counsel from a seven-nation advisory group led by the United States, Britain and Israel. The State Department plans to station 100-plus security agents in Athens during the Olympics, and the Energy Department has agreed to provide Greece with radiation detection equipment.
In April, House Intelligence Chairman Porter Goss, Florida Republican, returned from a security meeting in Athens and declared himself “pleasantly surprised.” Privately, U.S. officials with knowledge of Greek security planning say the country is as prepared as possible, a sentiment shared by the USOC.
“I’ve been to Athens three times,” says Herman Fraizer, the USOC’s chef de mission and a former Olympian. “We’re not going to put our athletes in harm’s way. We believe that the things that are in place will give us a secure area in which to compete.”
Some concerns remain. Security specialists fret that construction delays may make venues more vulnerable to the type of stadium booby-trap attack that killed Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov last month. The IOC recently took out $170 million worth of cancellation insurance on the Games, the first such policy in Olympic history.
More worrisome, Athenians have an odd habit of blowing stuff up. Earlier this year, a group named after Olympic mascots Phevos and Athena firebombed a pair of Greek government vehicles; last month, three larger explosions occurred outside an Athens police station.
Though no one was hurt in the blasts — Greek officials downplayed the incident, then labeled it “high treason” — Australia subsequently announced plans to keep two jumbo jets on standby during the Games, the better to facilitate a quick evacuation.
High-profile athletes such as tennis star Lindsay Davenport have expressed reservations about competing in Athens, and more than half of the 5.3 million tickets for the Games remain unsold.
“We know that they’ll take good care of us,” says Kristine Lilly, a midfielder on the U.S. national soccer team. “But for any of us, there’s a feeling of nervousness about what’s been going on in the world.”
Making up lost time
Different day. Same scene. Three times a week, Athenian businessman Kostas Kofinakos rises before dawn, then drives to a local hospital for dialysis treatments.
As Mr. Kofinakos motors along under-construction Kifissias Avenue, the Olympic Stadium looms in the distance, workmen scurrying across its klieg-lit roof.
“They’re working 24 hours,” says Mr. Kofinakos, the owner of Plaka’s Gate Cafe, an Athens coffee shop. “I saw them at four in the morning, working with lights. It will be ready.”
Upon winning the right to host the Olympics in 1997, Greece celebrated by doing, well, next to nothing. For three years, organizers and government officials engaged in intramural squabbling, sparring over construction contracts and venue locations. Few projects were started; fewer still were completed.
Having promised Games on a “human scale” — a scaled-down corrective to the crass commercialism of the Atlanta Games — the Greeks squandered time in that most human of institutions: the dithering committee.
“The word that I learned first when I was playing [in Athens] was ‘avrio,’ which means tomorrow,” says Jeff Nygaard, a U.S. beach volleyballer who played professionally in Greece. “When am I getting paid? Avrio. When is this going to happen? Avrio. The guy who was the head of our club, we nicknamed him ‘Mr. Avrio.’”
Overabundance of history
When organizers managed to break ground, they ran into another snag: history. Digging subway tunnels in central Athens, workers unearthed ancient roads, historic statues, the tomb of a pet dog. Near the Olympic equestrian venue, excavation revealed a temple of Aphrodite (next to an ancient brothel).
In both cases, Greek law required that construction be halted until archeologists picked through the uncovered ruins — an everyday Athens occurrence, says to resident Isaac Osin.
Mr. Osin, a Cuban-born salesman of Olympic pins, gestures toward an empty lot across the street from his downtown souvenir shop.
“The government was going to build an apartment there,” he says. “Then, boom, guess what? Antiquity. The archeologists come in with little picks, sifting by hand. But when you see that incredible city that is 3,000 years old underground, you understand.”
While Athens fiddled, the IOC burned. For the wealthiest of nations, the prolonged dithering would be an embarrassment; for the smallest country to host the Summer Games since Finland in 1952, it was downright suicidal.
In the spring of 2000, Olympic boss Juan Antonio Samaranch issued a rare public warning, dubbing the Athens Games the worst organizational crisis of his 20-year career. Privately, IOC officials hinted that the Games might be moved to another city, a humiliating and unprecedented step.
Courting catastrophe, Greece refocused. Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, the dynamo who spearheaded Athens’ original bid, returned to lead the organizing committee. Organizers and government ministers put aside petty feuds. Athens became a constant construction zone.
In early March, the Greek conservative party won national elections, ending 11 years of Socialist government. New Prime Minister Costas Caramanlis took personal charge of Olympic preparations. Three weeks later, Greece endured a nationwide strike — but crews continued to labor on the main Olympic complex.
“We decided to expand in Greece because we thought it would be a paradise for contractors,” says Petros Andreou, the managing director of CHAPO, a Cyprus-based construction company that opened an Athens office in 1997. “It has been.”
Playing catchup isn’t cheap. Public Works Minister Giorgos Souflias recently told the Greek Parliament that Olympic construction would cost at least $2.7 billion, well above original estimates of $1.9 billion.
During a subsequent address, Mr. Souflias wondered aloud whether the Games’ expected $7 billion total price tag — $8.5 billion including long-term projects — was worth the trouble. Socialist deputies promptly heckled him. Previous Olympics have saddled cities such as Montreal with cumbersome debts and crumbling stadiums. Athens expects a different legacy.
Building to last
Already, organizers say, the city has a new, modern airport. A Beltway-style ring road. Three new mass transit lines, one of which links downtown and coastal Athens for the first time. The city also is repaving 156 miles of roads, installing more than 1,000 disability access ramps and planting 14,000 trees.
Never mind that the aforementioned transit system won’t be complete until later this decade — in a traffic-clogged city of nearly 5 million, half a Metro counts as major progress.
“Nothing is of a temporary nature,” says Panos Protopsaltis, transportation manager for the Olympics. “It is all needed for the city. The Athens I knew 10 years ago will have nothing to do with Athens after the Games.”
If any one project symbolizes the just-in-time nature of the Games, it’s the Olympic Stadium roof, a grandiose steel-and-glass showpiece designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava.
Intended to be the signature image of the Olympics — and since ridiculed as a wasteful, unnecessary flourish — the ambitious, $250 million bauble has provoked nearly as much hand-wringing as the Games themselves. Three years ago, the IOC recommended the project be scrapped; three months ago, both of the roof’s 231-foot-high half-domes remained ground bound, potential monuments to the great Greek tragic flaw of hubris.
When one of the domes finally went up in mid-May, neatly dovetailing with a visit from IOC inspectors, Deputy Culture Minister Fani Palli-Petralia christened the structure with a bottle of wine and dubbed the moment a “won bet.” The second dome was moved into place two weeks ago.
“We know that it will be different than Games in the past,” says USOC Chief Executive Officer Jim Scherr. “Some of the amenities we’ve become accustomed to won’t be ready. But the most important thing, the playing fields, will be.”
Buoyed by a subsequent IOC vote of confidence, organizers claim Olympic preparations are now 85 percent complete. Come August, they envision a uniquely Greek Games: archery in picturesque Panathinaiko Stadium; cycling in the shadow of the Parthenon; shot put on the grounds of ancient Olympia.
Mr. Capralos adds that the home team hopes to capture 20 medals — 10 times what Greece took home in Barcelona.
“It’s an ambitious goal,” he admits. “But we may have surprises.”
Running to Marathon
A two-lane road runs north and east, from Athens to the city of Marathon. About 2,500 years ago, the latter location was the scene of history’s biggest upsets, a Greek triumph over invading Persians.
After the battle, a herald named Phidippides ran from Marathon to Athens to announce the good news, then dropped dead from sheer exhaustion. The marathon race was born. Soon, the storied route may host another homegrown surprise: Distance runner Nikos Polias has won four major races on the grueling, 26.2-mile course and has a chance at an Olympic medal.
But first, he’ll need a road to run on.
With fewer than 100 days before the Games’ opening ceremonies, the route looks like a war zone — if not from the Battle of Marathon, then perhaps the Battle of I-95. Plastic orange fences ring rubble-strewn medians. Red and blue drainage pipes crisscross waist-deep ditches. Traffic runs in starts and stops. Mostly the latter.
In part because the original contractor went belly-up, a planned widening project is behind schedule — and currently the only race to the finish line involves pavers and surveyors.
“They’re not finished,” laments Giorgos Baziotopoulos, an Athens cabdriver. “It’s a problem. It’s crazy.”
Perhaps. But no crazier than a country the size of Greece taking on a project as big as the Games. Like every other dust-covered stadium and half-done subway stop, organizers expect the road to be ready in time for the Olympics. Avrio. And probably not a moment sooner.
“You see that road for the first time and say, ‘Oh, my God,’ ” Mr. Capralos says. “I was there a month ago and said, ‘My God, how much they have progressed.’ At the end, we’ll show the whole world that Greece has done it. And we will do it.”
Mr. Capralos smiles. The road will be paved. The race will be run. Athens will pull it off. All of it. In the face of everything, he still believes.
Besides, it’s not as though the marathon course needs a roof.