8 October 2000

Brough Scott travels to the home of the Olympics and finds organisers facing a mountainous task

There was Olympic gold and silver for Costas Kenteris and Katherina Thanou at Sydney 2000. Has Athens, with its traffic chaos, organisational crisis culture and safety disasters, got a hope of hosting to even bronze standard in 2004?

It is already the big post-Sydney question. On Friday our bright-eyed pair (Kenteris pipped Darren Campbell in the 200 metres, Thanou pursued Marion Jones vainly in the 100m) had strolled down from a Presidential Palace reception to pose in the second-century splendour of the Panithinaikon Stadium where the 2004 Olympics will officially begin. Half a mile to the west, the Parthenon stood high and proud in the afternoon sun. The Games are coming home. But history is a heavy load.

Ask Alexander the Albanian shepherd. On Thursday he was tending his 100-strong flock on a wide piece of scrubland 10 miles to the north of us. If you want to get into Greek symbolism, you could say that behind him Mount Parnitha was glinting in the setting sun. If you want to focus on Athens 2004 you need to know that within four years, the land where Alexander’s sheep graze is supposed to be where the athletes spend their time.

To walk in the dust and stones and bushes and dirt of the Olympic Village site at Acharnai is to witness the most obvious challenge for Athens, hosting for the first time since it opened the modern Olympic era in that same Panithinaikon Stadium in 1896. But it is such a long way from being the only one that the issue is now being raised of the Games being taken away from Athens altogether.

The traffic is truly terrible. Even at 7.30pm on a Thursday the road back to the capital quickly deteriorates into a gas-guzzling, cigarette-fuming log jam. Petrol as cheap, for us, as 52p per litre, had not prevented a taxi strike the previous evening. And a sightseeing diversion through the city confronted us with the flash point of the whole Olympic impasse.

Driving down past the prime minister’s base on Irodou Attiko Street, next to the Presidential Palace, we suddenly came upon the arc lights, camera tripods and gathered hacks outside tall iron gates which signal a news stake-out. Inside with the premier, Costas Simitis, was Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, the forceful and glamorous 44-year-old millionaire lawyer who headed up the successful Athens bid and who was this spring brought back as president to inject much needed urgency into the Olympic Organising Committee.

Angelopoulos had gone in at a quarter to eight. She would be out, the premier’s press secretary, Dimitrios Rebbas, assured us, by half past. She would make a brief statement. All would be well. The minutes lengthened, the hour came and went. Dark rumours swirled about her possible resignation, about rows among ministers sidelined by her directness and irritated by her reputed weekly salary of 10 million drachma, some five times their own.

Dimitrios was a small, grey-haired, shirt-sleeved version of Alastair Campbell. “She would be out soon,” he said. Pictures of the Belgrade uprising flickered on the television. At half past nine, she was suddenly down the steps, into the limousine and out into the dark without a word. The rumour mill went into overdrive.

Next morning did not at first bring much reassurance. The rolling land around Markopoulo, 15 miles south-east of Athens, is a fertile mix of vineyards, fig plantations and orange groves. By 2004 it will become the Olympic equestrian centre, but only when tenders have been completed and work started on the new racecourse nearby which, when finished, can then free up the present racecourse site at Faliron, on the city coast, for a multi-sports centre to house the likes of volleyball, handball, boxing, judo and taekwondo.

If you think that looks to be uphill work you should travel further north to the eastern coast, where environmental objections have forced a change of plan for the as yet un-started rowing and canoeing centre at Shinias. If you want to get the post-Sydney doubts properly aired, you need also to query a lack of hotel space which meant that even last week we had to stay outside the city. You need to wonder about the scorching heat of Athens in August (no actual date has yet been set), and, most darkly, you have to worry about security implications for a nation beleaguered by the recent ferry disaster, the earthquake death toll in 1999 and by the killing of the British military attache earlier this year by the November 17 terrorist group, none of whom has been arrested in 20 years of assassinations.

The mood was hardly eased by yet another traffic jam locking much of Messogion Avenue as we tried to get back into Athens after seeing the admittedly very impressive new airport due to open next March. It claims to be the most modern in Europe, but with the new ring road still a long way from complete, how on earth is anyone going to get to it once the planes arrive?

But even in the harsh fresh light of the new Sydney Olympic benchmark, a case for Athens’ defence can still be made. They may, with just 10 million people, be the smallest country to host the Games, but they are very proud of their heritage and increasingly up for the challenge. When Mayor Avramopoulos talks of the chance of putting in a modern infrastructure not just for the Olympics but to bring the city up to date, the obviousness just screams at you.

If the Greeks want to be the casual Mediterraneans of north European caricature the whole thing will be a disaster. But it need not be that way. The plans are huge, the money is pledged, and quite a lot, like the enormous Olympic stadium complex in the northern suburbs, is already well established. Indeed, that was voted an outstanding success for Athens’ hosting of the World Athletics Championships in 1997.

Which brings us to the athletes themselves. On Friday morning the whole Olympic team bar the gold medal winning weightlifter, Pyrros Dimas, were at two receptions in the city. The first was from church leaders, where an archbishop presented winners with medals and the others with copies of the New Testament, the second was in the gardens of the Presidential Palace, where President Stefanopoulos himself did the glad-handing bit.

Conspiracy theorists could get excited by Angelopoulos’ absence. She had apparently gone home to her family in London, but the ubiquitous Dmitrios Rebbos put out a reassuring statement. So, more firmly, did the bearded figure of executive director Marton Simitesk. “Of course we have a lot to do,” he said. “There are things like the TV host broadcaster to finalise and we had got behind. But we are in full contact with the IOC and we are back on track. Negative criticism will change when people begin to see the progress.”

And maybe when they talk to the athletes. Kenteris and Thanou walked across into the old stadium as their coach, Christos Tsekos, rode beside on his scooter. Kenteris, 27, told how the next day he was going back to a hero’s reception on his native island of Lesbos. Thanou, 25, laughed at the memory of how before starting athletics at 19, her principal activity had been traditional Greek dancing.

The pair of them posed, young and lithe and happy, on the spot where their forebears had run all those centuries ago. “Yes,” said Thanou, “there is much work to be done but we Greeks are very proud of having the Games. We believe we can bring something. We believe there will be a special spirit to this Olympics. Please only judge us when they are over.”

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