The blimps are always up there, hovering overhead like some kind of Olympic guardian angels, watching, waiting, protecting the city.
The blimps were launched a few weeks ago with a flurry of publicity, touted as high-tech $2.4 million watchmen, equipped with high-resolution cameras and chemical-detection "sniffers." Obviously, such super-blimps should not be sullied with a logo as prosaic as "Goodyear." But there is something printed on the side. What does it say? If you squint, you can make it out:
Really. You couldn't make up something like that.
There's a phone number below the word. Dial it and you get a message in Greek and then English: "The number you have dialed is not in use." Well, of course. You can't just dial up a guardian angel.
The blimps are just part of the $1.5 billion security for these Games, along with the underwater sensors in the harbor at Piraeus and 1,000 security cameras. There are also 70,000 Greek soldiers and cops stationed on the streets. They come in various forms -- scary-looking soldiers in camouflage uniforms standing at rigid attention, holding automatic weapons, plus cops in light blue or light green uniforms, who don't look scary at all. They slouch, they smoke, they joke with reporters entering the Main Press Center. Most of these cops, male and female, are trim and good-looking in their jaunty berets and shades. You wonder: Are all Greek cops attractive? Don't they have any pudgy doughnut-chompers? Or did they station all the hunks and babes at the Press Center for PR purposes?
The Press Center, located near the main swimming and track venues, is an incomprehensible maze of interconnecting structures. In at least one building, the floor plan goes like this: First there's Level 0. Then Level 1. Then Level 2. Then Level 4. Then Level 5. Nobody seems to know what happened to Level 3. Maybe they shipped it to another building, which now has two Level 3s.
Inside the Press Center -- and the broadcast center next door -- the 21,000 accredited media folks troll for stories about the 10,000 athletes, who are mostly elsewhere and generally unavailable for comment, except during official news conferences. These events are as ritualized as Kabuki: Reporters ask whether the athletes feel confident. Athletes reply that they are confident but realize their opponents will be tough. At the press conference for the U.S. Greco-Roman wrestling team the other day, coach Steve Fraser went through the confident-but-not-cocky routine, then candidly revealed his team's game plan:
"We're gonna have to wrestle," he said.
At the U.S. boxing team's press conference, somebody asked light heavyweight Andre Ward how he felt when he posed this week for a U.S. newspaper standing in front of the Parthenon wearing a toga, an olive wreath and his boxing gloves.
"It was a good experience," Ward replied. The Parthenon is "what you see when you come to Greece and I was glad to see it face to face."
He's right about that. It is good to see the Parthenon face to face, even though it's kind of old and broken down. Plato and Socrates are said to have trod the hill where it stands, although they haven't been seen this week. Maybe they've fled the Olympic hubbub and headed for the beach like so many of their fellow Athenians.
The Parthenon and other ancient ruins are full of tourists, who are easy to spot. They stand on street corners, looking down at their maps, then up at the street signs, then down at their maps again. They're baffled at the Greek alphabet, which contains some weird-looking letters -- a triangle, a circle with a line through it, an upside-down V, a sideways M and a pitchfork. It gets a little easier when you realize that the Greek alphabet is based on the names of American college fraternities.
Athens is loaded with ancient ruins. Apparently, you can't dig a hole without uncovering them. When the Greeks dug new subway stops in preparation for these Games, they found all sorts of ancient stuff, now displayed in the subway stations. In the Evangelismas station, for example, there's a display of newly discovered water pipes from 6th century B.C. They're made of terra cotta and they're in great shape. Perhaps the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority can borrow some for use in its lead-pipe replacement projects.
Ancient Greek history is Athens's meat and potatoes, but you don't hear much about modern Greek history. That's because it's a lot less illustrious, mostly the story of foreign occupations and despotic rulers. Here's an item from one guidebook's timeline of Greece's 20th century:
"1920: King Alexander dies after being bitten by a pet monkey."
It's not the kind of thing that'll get tourists swarming.
On Friday night, the Greeks will stage their elaborate Olympic Opening Ceremonies. The details are a closely guarded secret but Elaina DeMeyere of Woodbridge, Va., knows that secret.
A 22-year-old classics student at the University of London, DeMeyere will perform in the Opening Ceremonies. On Wednesday afternoon she agreed to a clandestine meeting with a reporter in a cafe far from the Olympic Stadium to discuss the secret ceremony.
So, Elaina, what will we see in the Opening Ceremonies?
"I'm not allowed to say," she says.
She flew here last February to audition for her part. She got the job. It pays no money but fulfills a dream she's had since she watched Atlanta's Opening Ceremonies on TV in 1996. But life has been tough since she arrived in late May to begin rehearsals.
"The whole process has been a bit of a nightmare," DeMeyere says.
First she got evicted by her landlord, then she lost her part-time job as a receptionist/cleaning lady in a youth hostel when her boss was fined almost $4,000 for hiring illegal foreign workers. Since then, she has been living with a friend, scrimping by on almost no money, and rehearsing for hours in the hot Greek sun.
"They treat us like dogs sometimes," DeMeyere says, "but I think the ceremony will be amazing."
That's pretty much all she'll say about it. A British newspaper recently printed a description of the ceremonies -- a comet striking a lake in the stadium, a centaur hurling a javelin, 400 drummers pounding out a human heartbeat -- but DeMeyere will neither confirm nor deny that account. On Tuesday night, more than 50,000 people watched the dress rehearsal, so the secret is kind of blown. But she made a vow of silence and she's sticking to it. Too bad Diogenes -- the ancient Greek who wandered through Athens with a lamp, searching for an honest person -- never met DeMeyere. She'll reveal just one tiny detail about the ceremonies.
"I'm gonna try to call my mom from the stadium," she says. "That will be cool."
Up in the bright blue Mediterranean sky, a blimp circles peacefully, emitting a soft purring hum. But down here in the street, it's a delightfully chaotic Greek Mardi Gras.
A parade of a hundred Greeks has left the confines of the sidewalk and is boogieing across a crowded street, stopping rush hour traffic. They're wearing traditional Greek garb -- the women in long dresses, the men in white skirts and knee-high black boots with pompoms on the toes. Their heads are crowned with olive wreaths, like Olympic champions. They're accompanied by a marching band -- two drummers, sax, trumpet, clarinet. The musicians are playing an old Greek folk song, but they're swinging like a New Orleans jazz band, the trumpeter blowing away like Satchmo, trading licks with the clarinetist.
What is this?
Just Demitris Talaganis and a hundred of his friends carrying his latest artworks to his gallery.
Talaganis, 58, is an Athens artist and architect. He is opening an exhibition of 40 Olympic-themed paintings, and he decided to deliver the art in grand style. So he called some friends from his home town of Tripolis and, voila, a parade.
"We're celebrating the Olympic Games, celebrating Athens and the youth of the world," he says, his eyes twinkling merrily under gray hair topped with an olive wreath.
The parade stops at a statue of Lord Byron, the British poet who died fighting for Greek independence, and Talaganis crowns Byron with a wreath as the band blows. They march on to the Temple of Zeus, where Talaganis deposits a wreath on the ancient sacred ground, occupied at this moment by a half-dozen of Athens's ubiquitous stray dogs. One of Talaganis's pals recites a poem, holding a lyre in one hand, gesticulating theatrically with the other.
A spectator offers an informal translation: "Europe, Asia, America -- we are one world, so in these Games, let love in and war out."
The parade moves on, the band blowing.
It looks like Athens is beginning to catch the party spirit. For nearly eight years, Greeks have grumbled about the Olympics -- the huge costs, the construction projects causing traffic jams, the political wrangling -- but now they're getting psyched, says Yvette Jarvis, an American-born Athens city councilwoman.
"They're lining the streets and displaying the flag," Jarvis says.
In fact, she adds, Greeks are so eager to show their best side to the world that they're curbing their natural tendency toward anarchy.
"Greeks are actually obeying the law," she says, amazed. "They're staying out of the Olympic bus lanes. They're actually throwing their trash into the trash can. This is new."
Of course, that doesn't mean they're getting stodgy. The other day the Ministries of Public Order and Labor announced that the bars of Athens could stay open late for the duration of the Games -- until 4:30 a.m on weekdays, all day and all night on weekends and saints' days. It's an edict that fits nicely with the Olympic spirit.
"The Olympics are the biggest party in the world," says Jeff Nygaard, an American beach volleyball player now heading into his third Olympics.
When 10,000 healthy, beautiful young people gather together from around the world, you get major partying and vigorous fraternizing. That's why the Olympic folks have provided 130,000 condoms for the athletes -- which works out to more than a dozen each. They're not likely to go to waste.
"You have a lot of people suddenly going crazy," says Nygaard. "There are athletes who train for four or eight years, with practices twice a day, and then their event is done and the reins are off and, believe me, some of them do go nuts. And I don't blame them."
But the Dionysian revelry will come later. For now, the athletes are serious, focused, zoned in.
Wander down to the diving pool and you can see some of them getting ready. It's as cool and quiet as a cathedral in there, shaded from the relentless Greek sun. The place is nearly empty, just a few cops and coaches and a half-dozen divers in a variety of different-colored swimsuits casually going about their work.
On one board, a tiny woman in a red suit bounces on one foot, dislodging water from her right ear. She walks to the edge of the board and turns around so her back is to the pool. She reaches back with both hands, fiddles with the butt of her suit. Slowly, elegantly, she bends forward until her hands rest on the board in front of her. Suddenly, her feet flip up and she's standing on her hands. Now, she dives, somersaults a few times and slices into the water.
It's a lovely little moment: no name, no nation, no crowd, no cheers, no television commentary, no judges rating her with a number. Nothing but pure grace.