Athens Olympics may have perfect timing - for world


March 24, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

IF THERE were ever a year the world needed an Olympics, it's this one.

Go ahead. Let the cynics say the terrorized global village we call Earth has finally surpassed the need for a massive sporting get-together. What's the use, now that things are so impossible to protect and control?

Let the worried and the confused say what's the point, that the symbolism of an Olympics as a peaceful communion of nations is like a deck chair on the Titanic in these turbulent waters. Can anything really bring the world together, prompt people to lay down their arms, their car bombs, biological weapons, dirty bombs or whatever else is out there? What kind of world is this when the United States can declare war on al-Qaida, not a nation in anyone's atlas?

So many forces appear to be conspiring against the 2004 Summer Games. Can the Greeks come through on construction plans that are so far behind schedule? And what about the potential for tragedy should billion-dollar security preparations fail to thwart whatever mayhem might go down during this Mediterranean fortnight?

But if Michael Phelps is undaunted about ugly world forces, why should anyone else worry? If he's not worried about not having a roof over the pool he'll use to try to make Olympic history, should anyone else worry? "A pool is a pool, roof or no roof. I'm going to be there and hopefully ready to swim," Phelps told The Sun last week.

So there's no roof over the pool in Athens. What do we want the Greeks to do, call off the Olympics? We'll pack extra sun block, and Phelps can wear shower shoes to keep those flipper-like feet from frying on the pool deck.

With five months to go before the Aug. 13 opening ceremony, several tipping points will arrive on which the world can better judge whether these Summer Games will prove to be a logistical nightmare.

Already, the Athens Olympics won't look like the plan rolled out eight years ago, when Greece made its fervent pitch to bring the Olympics home to their birthplace. But there's a difference between falling short and falling on your face. It's one thing for spectators, officials or the media to be inconvenienced by construction lapses or transportation snafus. It's a serious problem if poor logistics affect an athlete and/or the competition.

"Athens is further behind than any of the 12 Olympics I've been to, but outside of L.A. [in 1984], where they basically used venues they already had, they're always behind. There's always wet paint, landscaping that's not finished," U.S. Olympic Committee media relations director Bob Condron said yesterday.

"But I'm more confident than most people. I've seen Athens five times over the last four years. It's gone from a vacant lot to almost being finished. No one other than Korea has been this ambitious. They didn't have time for any glitches, because other than the volleyball venue, they're all new."

Greece was awarded the Games in 1997, and it took a serious reprimand from the International Olympic Committee three years later for the Greek organizers to allow an international coalition help ramp up construction. It's too late to move the Olympics now.

Construction lapses are the visible threat to a successful Olympics. Then there are the invisible threats, like those that cause the United States to hit code orange.

Greece has asked NATO for air and sea surveillance during the games. A billion dollars and 100,000 forces will turn Athens into a police state. British, French, German, Australian, U.S. and Israeli troops are conducting mock hostage scenarios in operations called the Hercules Shield.

None of these arrangements guarantees any group with a dangerous or deadly agenda can't shut down the Olympics, particularly at the ports and transportation systems. It's a situation that causes worry, speculation, all for the athletes to hear - or try to avoid hearing in order to train, prepare.

"Even before the Madrid bombings, there was something printed in a London paper saying the U.S. might not go [to Athens]," Condon said. "That was not from us. Sen. John McCain said in an interview at great lengths that we're going to go; our plans are to go.

"They don't care if these games are on Mars. They want to win. They want to compete against seven other athletes and beat them."

When the Greeks began the Olympics in 776 B.C., they called for the sacred truce; all fighting in all of Greece would stop as long as the Olympic Games were on. It doesn't always go like this. We give you Berlin, where Hitler presided over the 1936 ceremonies even as genocide and war were planned, and Munich, where Israeli athletes were murdered.

The dovetailing themes of danger and logistical problems headlining this countdown to Athens are not particularly rosy. But they'll put these games on. The television pictures and Internet feeds will pull millions and millions of eyes from all over the world onto this one, hot place.

For all the worry about how troubled Athens might be, how dangerous, what if it isn't? Would that serve the world some purpose worth enduring the relatively minor inconveniences, like too much sun or a late bus? The Greeks, for one, have always thought so.

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