Against all odds, Athens is ready

Gianna Angelopoulous-Daskalaki, the head of the Athens 2004 Organising Committee, deserves a lot of credit for Athens being able to meet all the infrastructural deadlines for the August 13 to 29 Games. -- Pic. AP-

For almost three years, Athens was behind schedule in everything, seriously prompting the IOC to look for alternate venues. But now everything is spick and span, writes S. THYAGARAJAN.

"All institutions degenerate because of their weakness but Olympism degenerates because of its power and material wealth." — Nikolas Nissiotis.

NO string of words have been textured so eloquently as to convey the threat to the ethos of Olympism as what this Greek historian, academician and former President of the International Olympic Academy, came up with while delivering a speech in 1979 at Lausanne to explain the philosophy of Olympism. The relevance of it is not lost on humanity even today as it awaits the unfolding of the 28th Olympiad in Athens.

Dora Bakoyannis, the Mayor of Athens, has this to say with regard to security: "In this insecure world, Athens will probably be the most secure city in August." -- Pic. AP-

Looking back on the enchanting evolution of the Olympic Movement at a time when the Games are set to return to the place of their rebirth in 1896, it is difficult to remain unaffected by the vicissitudes and nostalgia of a great concept, conceived to enhance the profile of the human spirit and understanding through sport as the instrument. Undeniably, a speck of thought of that visionary, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, has acquired today a new meaning, a different aura and a surprising dynamism in the ever changing world.

For all the brave postures of keeping the Olympiad apolitical and free of commercial pressures, the administrators were forced to effect compromises all through, just to prevent the Games from slipping into the limbo. The two bloody wars only firmed the resilience of the movement, though a modicum of sacrifice had to be made to keep intact the larger framework. Olympism today combats not only political and commercial exploitation but also doping and terrorism in various manifestations.

Amidst this grim scenario blossoms one more edition of the world's biggest sports extravaganza on August 13. Little did one realise on September 5, 1997, when members of the International Olympic Committee at Lausanne voted for Athens as the candidate city for the 2004 Games, that the world would be in such a turmoil as it is today. Athens prevailed over Rome in the last round (66-41) after Buenos Aires, Stockholm, Cape Town and San Juan went out of the race in the earlier counts. The euphoria that swept across Greece for winning the confidence vote — the city had lost the earlier bid for the Centennial Games which went to Atlanta — soon turned into a mood of despair.

Government funding

The route for the Marathon will be the same as the legendary Pheidippides' run from Marathonas to Athens to announce the Greek victory over Persia in 490 BC. — Pic. REUTERS and GETTY IMAGES-

For almost three years, Athens was behind schedule in everything, seriously prompting the IOC to look for alternate venues. There were even reports that the Games might be shifted to Paris if the Hellenic Olympic Committee did not get its act together. Delays in construction, financial problems and labour unrest all accentuated the mood of apprehension. The escalating cost from the projected US $ 4.9 billions to eight billions for conducting this mammoth exercise put the host under enormous stress. This left many wondering whether Athens could meet its commitment at all. After Moscow in 1980, Greece is the first country to provide Government funding for staging the Games.

After an uncertain three years, the Athens Olympic Games Organising Committee (ATHOC) was reorganised under the leadership of the dynamic politician, lawyer, Member of Parliament and an acknowledged public face of the city, Ms. Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki. From then on, every sphere of activity connected with raising the infrastructure and putting in place an effective apparatus to supervise the organisation switched to top gear. The inputs from the 130 observers, who were in Sydney to study the Games in 2000 helped to shape the various Olympic venues. A two-tier approach was accepted; first, to refurbish the existing stadia, including the huge Main Stadium built to stage the European Athletics Championship in 1982, and upgrade other venues to state-of-the-art facilities.

Nostalgia

While work on the projects went on as late as June this year, the Athenians never wanted to forget the structure that evoked instant nostalgia. It was the Panathinaikos Stadium, where the first modern Games were staged. This wonderful marble structure was funded by the Greek businessman Georgos Averoff, who sponsored the first modern Olympics in 1896.

The Organising Committee lost no time in giving this historic landmark unstinted attention. This will be used for conducting the archery event, and also be the finish point for the Marathon for which the route will the same as the legendary Pheidippides' run from Marathonas to Athens to announce the Greek victory over Persia in 490 BC. To add a touch of beauty and aesthetics to the Main Olympic stadium, the Government commissioned the Spanish architect, Santiago Calatrava, who designed a massive roof. The roof with pieces twice the weight of the Eiffel Tower was put in place only a few months ago, ending a long period of uncertainty and criticism.

Scepticism, however, reigned supreme even within the IOC whether Athens would be ready in time for the 28 disciplines (301 medal ceremonies) in 35 venues and whether it could cater to the needs of 10,500 competitors, 5000 officials and a huge media contingent. As many as 202 countries have confirmed their participation, and the return of Afghanistan to the fold will be a highlight as will be the induction of Palestine.

Women's wrestling is a totally new discipline, while women's sabre is included in fencing. For the first time cameras will be used for verification in boxing. The projection is that as many as 1.5 million people will visit the city and around 40 million will witness the Games on TV.

The finishing point for the Marathon will be at the historic Panathinaikos Stadium, the venue of the first modern Olympics in 1896. — Pic. REUTERS and GETTY IMAGES-

What the world had not envisaged when Athens won the bid was the disastrous 9/11. Thereafter, the issue of security gained precedence over everything. A really massive apparatus had to be carved out to protect the Games from terrorism. As many as 70,000 policemen will be on the job, and the ATHOC has sought the help of NATO forces for surveillance of land, sea and sky. An advisory task force of experts from the US, UK, Australia, Israel, Spain, Germany and France has been created. The expense on security is around US $ 1.2 billion, three times that of the money spent at Sydney. " We believe whatever can be done as preparation for security we have done it... . In this insecure world, Athens will probably be the most secure city in August," commented the city Mayor, Ms. Dora Bakoyannis.

Misgivings now have given way to optimism. Athens is ready, and confident to face the challenges. Nothing has inspired the nation as much as the soccer triumph in Euro 2004. Says Gianna Angelopoulos Daskalaki, the President of ATHOC, " We Greeks have a long history of those who underestimate us; the dramatic triumph of our soccer team in the European Championship is just the latest series of surprise victories — victories that predate the written word... ..Modern Athens has never been more prepared."

Athens, nay, Greece, is all set to make history.

The cost factor

COSTS for staging recent Summer Olympics as reported by organising committees. Figures do not always include public works projects for the games:

Atlanta, 1996: US$1.72 billion. Sydney, 2000: US$1.5 billion.

Athens, 2004: est. US$8 billion to US$12 billion.

Beijing, 2008: est. US$33.8 billion for operating expenses, sports facilities and other projects.