In Greece, a Mad Dash to the Finish
Deadline Is Looming for Final Olympic Preparations
By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 13, 2004; Page A01
MARATHON, Greece, May 12 -- Athletes have been running the mostly uphill route from this village to Athens for about 2,500 years, ever since a swift soldier named Phidippides legged the 26.2 miles to deliver news of a military victory over the Persians. But with just three months to go until the Olympic Games return to Greece, the ancient path is hardly fit for the world's best modern-day marathoners.
Hundreds of dump trucks, excavators, cement mixers and laborers with old-fashioned pickaxes are working double shifts to widen the racecourse along a narrow highway, but are far behind schedule. About half the route remains under construction. In Marathon, the starting line is nowhere to be seen; even the local work crews say they aren't sure where it's supposed to go.
The asphalt ribbon is one of numerous venues that are still unfinished as Athens scrambles to prepare for the Aug. 13-29 Olympics. The Olympic Stadium -- site of the Opening Ceremonies and the track and field events -- needs seats, not to mention an 18,000-ton roof that began sliding into place only this week. Across the region, the sound of jackhammers echoes with the building of new roads, subways and sidewalks. Everything is dusty.
With so much undone, it came as a huge relief to the host city Wednesday when visitors from the International Olympic Committee wrapped up a three-day final inspection tour and pronounced themselves confident that everything would be ready on time. Denis Oswald, the IOC's chief overseer for the Athens Games, said he was impressed with the progress and credited the Greeks for picking up the pace. "I can really witness the progress," he said.
"In the past we had doubts," Oswald acknowledged at a news conference. "I am very happy to report all these doubts have disappeared. . . . No single project is at risk and we know everything will be delivered on time."
In 2000, the IOC threatened to take the Olympics from Athens because the Greeks, plagued by political bickering and government spending controls, had failed to show much headway since being awarded the Games three years earlier.
Since then, Greece has labored to prove that a small country -- population 11 million -- can successfully put on a $6.5 billion athletic spectacle. Complicating matters have been escalating demands for better security measures after the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, followed by bombings in Istanbul last November and in Madrid two months ago.
"In 2000, we began meeting under the shadow of a yellow card and, since then, we have done seven years' work in just four years' time," Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, president of the Athens 2004 organizing committee, said after the IOC finished its tour Wednesday. "This is a fact and it's proof of what we Greeks can do when we work in a focused and professional way. . . . When the world's best athletes come to Greece for the historic homecoming of the Olympic Games, we will be ready to welcome them."
There are still plenty of obstacles. Athens officials tout the planned 75,000-seat stadium, with its bowlegged glass-and-steel roof, as the architectural centerpiece of this year's Olympics. But where Sydney completed its Olympic Stadium 18 months prior to the start of the 2000 Games, Greece waited until last year to finalize the construction contracts.
After repeated delays, there was some talk of pulling the plug on the roof altogether for fear that the enduring image of the Opening Ceremonies would be of a half-finished edifice. Similar concerns had already prompted a decision to scrap plans for a covered aquatic center and leave it as an open-air swimming area instead. But under pressure from the IOC, contractors began slowly raising the stadium roof with cranes on Monday and pledged to cap it off by the end of the month.
Landscaping provides another challenge. Because of all the construction activity, the land around the main athletic complex is a dust bowl that a single heavy rain could turn into a quagmire of mud. Officials promise tens of thousands of trees, shrubs and other plants, but not until July -- the hottest month of the year in Athens, hardly a conducive time for vegetation.
Traffic congestion throughout Athens, a ringing headache in normal times, has peaked because the Greek government is building so many new roads and transit lines to accommodate the expected crowds for the Olympics.
Many Athenians say they are willing to put up with the inconvenience because they figure the improvements will pay off in the long term. And despite the ticking clock and all the planning problems, they say they are confident that the transportation network will be ready.
Panayotis Lezilis, 38, is helping to build a four-lane expressway that will connect the athletes' Olympic Village with the stadium complex on the other side of town. He said the road was first delayed when workers unearthed archaeological ruins along the planned route, and then delayed again when one of the contractors went bankrupt.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company