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.

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. . . .

"Athens's reasons were very different. They have accelerated 20 years of development into 20 months."

For Athens, which lost its bid for the 1996 Summer Games, the Olympics brought a new airport, new highways, new trains, new trams, new subway lines, new sports venues and, Angelopoulos-Daskalaki said, a new confidence. A thick cloud of pollution that used to cover the city and blacken its buildings before the Games were awarded in 1997 is gone.

"We've seen projects come out of the ground that were needed for 10, 15 or 20 years," Angelopoulos-Daskalaki said. "Because of the Games, we decided to create them. Now, all of these projects have changed completely the face of the Attica area . . . changed completely the lives of the citizens."

The prestige associated with pulling off a successful Games motivated even 19th-century Athens, then the center of a bankrupt country seeking political recognition. The 1964 Games, which featured a virtual reconstruction of Tokyo and cost nearly $2 billion, affirmed Tokyo's evolution into an elite city.

Seoul in 1988, Barcelona in 1992 and Atlanta in 1996 sought, and attained, similar rises. But the gains have often sent bottom lines plunging. The financial windfall that hit the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles, which took advantage of existing venues as well as television and commercial exposure to make a $223 million profit, rarely has been duplicated.

Montreal's Olympic stadium was nicknamed "The Big Owe," mocking the billion-dollar debt that drained the economy for years after the 1976 Games. Barcelona found itself invigorated, beautified and in debt to the tune of $20 million. Sydney, which held the highly successful 2000 Summer Games, has been left with several taxpayer-funded venues with little post-Games use.

Some Greeks fear a similar economic hangover. In May, Greece's public works minister, George Souflias, expressed doubts about whether Athens should have bid for the Games, which have run nearly $2 billion over budget to a tab of at least $7.2 billion, according to recent estimates that will be revised in the coming days. Athens locals have deserted the city in droves as Olympians have moved in. Ticket sales have fallen well short of expectations. A swatch of graffiti on a wall near a bus stop on a major Athens boulevard reads "[Expletive] Olymbic Gams."

In an interview this week, Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis said Greek pride and enthusiasm had begun to soar but acknowledged that "the city went through, as all of us did, periods of questioning, agonizing and skepticism, even."

International Olympic Committee member Dick Pound, a former IOC vice president, said this week that Greece was paying the price for its own sloppy work. Athens fell so far behind on its construction projects, the IOC threatened several years ago to take the Games elsewhere.

"They dithered for three years," Pound said. "They turned seven-year projects into four-year projects. All late construction is expensive construction."

Though the IOC is eager to award the Olympics to cities and nations that have never held them, some wonder how developing nations could ever bear the cost. Beijing, the site of the next Summer Games in 2008, has plans to build 15 venues, a host of roads and a new airport. Estimated cost to China's communist government: $33 billion.

Zarnowski and some other Olympic experts suggest that the Summer Games -- more than twice the size of the Winter Games -- be rotated among just a handful of large cities, but it's a proposal most Greeks solidly reject.

"I would be very sad to acknowledge that only five or six cities in the world are allowed the privilege because of financial constraints to organize [the Games]," Karamanlis said. "I think that would be a serious blow to the Olympic spirit."

U.S. Olympic Committee President Peter Ueberroth, the former head of the Los Angeles Olympic organizing committee, said Greece has proven the Games can be managed, even by smaller nations.

"The first gold medal, it's been won already," he said. "It's been won by the organizing committee and the people in Greece. They have defied all of the people in this room, and most reasonable people, who thought they wouldn't be ready."

"The cost is and was considerable," Karamanlis said. "The investment not only in funds but in energy, time and effort was very big. But I'm optimistic that the medium- and long-term efforts will be fully worth it. . . . Mainly because it's a golden opportunity . . . for the rest of the world to make acquaintance with Greece as it is today."