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With Games, Greece Goes for Broke

Hosting Olympics Brings Prestige, but Costs Are Troublingly High

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 13, 2004; Page A01

ATHENS, Aug. 12 -- A high-ranking Olympic leader summed up the dire situation facing Athens with the fast approach of the Summer Games. Countless unfinished construction projects and burgeoning costs "shook the confidence of many as to the timely completion of the work and the successful carrying out of the Games," he stated. "The Greek press declared the lack of the public confidence, in sentences which often expressed hopelessness."

It was a "miracle," the official added, that the main Olympic Stadium and various other projects were finished on time.

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The late Timoleon I. Philemon was talking about the 1896 Olympics.

Similar words could be used to describe the 2004 Games, an oft-criticized, relentlessly doubted, frequently delayed, multibillion-dollar undertaking that will kick off with Friday's Opening Ceremonies, beginning the last -- and weightiest -- leg of a seven-year journey. Though these Games will be dissected and evaluated over the next 17 days, Athens Organizing Committee chief Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki declared Greece's progress to date "like a miracle."

"We multiplied the ability of working 24 hours a day," she said this week. "It's the equivalent of 100 hours. I don't know how we did that."

Some in Greece wonder why they did it.

Frenzied last-minute work and unforeseen expenditures, out of which have arisen a modernized metropolis designed to provide a playground for some 10,000 athletes from 202 nations, have stretched this small country almost beyond its capacity and raised questions about whether the massive Summer Games are feasible and worth the money.

Fiscal problems that have plagued Olympic hosts for more than a century have ballooned in recent years because of a bloated sports program, rising media demands and the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Security has gone from being a priority to a nearly unmanageable burden. Still, Olympic experts say, the Games bring status, tourism, global attention, infrastructure improvements and new facilities.

Cities are first hopelessly tantalized, according to Olympic historian C. Frank Zarnowski. Only later are they socked in the pocketbook.

"At the beginning of the bidding process, there's a naivete about how much it will cost to get it done," said Zarnowski, who in the early 1990s authored a paper on Olympic costs as a professor at Mount St. Mary's in Emmitsburg, Md. "It's been something that's repeated throughout the 20th century. . . . You need cities that have something to prove, that want to be considered part of the elite cities in the world."

In recent years, cities have clamored to host the Olympics, seemingly undaunted by rising costs. A record nine put in bids for the 2012 Summer Games; New York, Paris, London, Moscow and Madrid made the May cut. Prior to entering the international race, New York survived a four-year fight to represent the United States by topping seven other bidders, including Washington-Baltimore.

The bidding process is intense. A team of 30 New York bid officials are here to observe and learn. The city's bid leaders hope four new stadiums can be built with the help of local professional teams. They estimate an $8 billion price tag.

And they won't know until next summer whether the 2012 Games are theirs.

"Every city has its own reasons for wanting to host the Games," New York 2012 founder Dan Doctoroff said. "We're trying to use the Olympic Games to change the city in ways that are not only necessary but profound for the city's future. . . .

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