- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 12, 2005

HELSINKI, Finland — Gazing skyward from the mondo track of heralded Olympic Stadium, I cannot help but wonder how huge this 40,000-seat venue must have seemed back in 1952, when the Finns played host to the Summer Games.

It is small by today’s comparisons; the main stadium in Athens had a capacity of 55,000, and the one in Sydney dwarfed all Olympic venues with 110,000 seats in 2000.

“No Summer Olympics ever again in Finland if the Olympics continue to keep going in the direction it is going,” said Ilkka Kanerva, president of Finnish athletics. “It’s become too big for Finland to stage.”

But playing host to a world track and field championships is another story. The Finns, as they did with the first world championships in 1983 and the European championships in 1994, are preparing for the 10th IAAF World Championships in Athletics from Aug.6 to 14.

“We had the first world championships in 1983, and I think the world championships system is working very well,” legendary Finnish athlete and statesman Lasse Viren said during a break during parliament. “Now that we have the 10th world championships, it’s great to have them back in Finland. Although we got the championships on very short notice, we’re doing very well with the organization.”

The Finnish capital won the right to play host to the championships after London was forced to withdraw when the British government shelved plans to build a new stadium in October 2001.

“Actually, the IAAF had a bit of an emergency situation when London failed, so the Finnish sports commission quickly put together a bid to have the world championships here,” said Viren, who took gold in the 5,000 and 10,000 in both the 1972 Munich Olympics and the 1976 Montreal Olympics.

The Finns got the call in April 2002, with a task of providing for more than 2,000 athletes from more than 200 countries. Compare that to the 69 countries represented at the 1952 Olympics.

The city is expecting 10,000 to 15,000 foreign tourists, according to Antti Pihlakoski, chief executive officer of the championships, plus more than 3,000 media representatives. The championships will be shown to more than 180 countries with a cumulative worldwide television audience of more than 4billion.

All told, some 400,000 tickets are expected to be sold, and tickets for Aug.10, which features the javelin — a Finnish favorite — already are history.

Even 60 days before the show begins, Pihlakoski has his finger so on the pulse that he can tell you to the hour how much time he has left until the opening ceremonies.

Asked about the issue of security, he said, “We don’t see any risk, but we are prepared.”

And how does he plan to protect the marathon course so spectators do not see a repeat of the 2004 men’s Olympic marathon, when defrocked Irish priest Neil Horan shoved the then-leader off the course.

“The whole route will be fenced,” Pihlakoski said. “We will have special protection systems for the top 10 runners that nothing is happening to them. The security is very tough for marathoners. And one thing we are making sure of is that [Horan] will not be in Finland.”

The marathon and the race walking course will be easier to patrol than Athens. The organizing committee has designed a 3-loop course that circles the beautifully clean and safe city, starting at neo-classical Helsinki Cathedral and Senate Square and ending at Olympic Stadium after passing many of the city’s prime tourist venues.

On a weeklong trip sponsored by Helsinki, I joined three other American journalists to preview the city and its many offerings. This is a quiet destination city with an easy, orderly flow about it that makes for a relaxing visit. No car horns or car alarms. And long days of sunlight above the 60th longitude.

Even if you can’t understand the Finnish language, most natives also speak English and are more than willing to help.

Transportation is readily available and cheap. Restaurants are plentiful and of high quality. Many international hotel chains are represented, and, as with many European countries, smoking unfortunately is prevalent. However, bicycle and running paths serpentine the city streets and far out into the country, which keeps the general population looking fairly fit.

Now, however, it is time to celebrate. Today is Helsinki Day, the remembrance of the founding of the city in 1550. The day is filled with concerts, dance performances and guided tours.


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