Athenians are sure Games will succeed

Despite spiraling costs and a blitz of last-minute preparations ahead of Friday's opening ceremonies, the proud city seems ready to play host

Athens Olympics -- Aug. 13 - 29

August 09, 2004|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ATHENS - The big man at the nut shop can recite the facts as if ticking them off a shopping list: Fourteen nations took part in the first modern Olympics in 1896. Two hundred forty-five athletes competed - all men. Number of events: 45.

And the Greek hero, Spiros Louis, a young water carrier, won the first modern marathon with a time of 2 hours, 58 minutes, 42 seconds.

"Ha!" laughed the big man, Kostas Kapakostas, 57, with a wave of his hand, roughly the size of a catcher's mitt. "It was 50 seconds!"

Forgive the Greeks their laughter, forgive their efforts - joking or not - to try to make their country look a bit better. They're weary of the negative press, comments such as: "They won't be ready." The "2004 disorganized games." And, "How'd these people win the Olympic bid, anyway?"

Kapakostas is ready, and Athens seems ready - or at least ready enough.

"This will be the best Olympics ever," Kapakostas said in his shop on the outskirts of the Plaka, the ancient market of Athens, in the shadow of the Acropolis, his white apron pulled over a white T-shirt, jeans and ample belly. "This is where the Olympics were born. They should hold them here every time."

To be sure, Athenians are not unanimous on that point. But if they are concerned about their country falling short of presenting a world-class Olympic Games, they hide it well.

The streets started to thicken with tourists only at the end of last week, but everywhere there are signs of change - to infrastructure, the landscape, the attitude of Greeks.

Sure, the prostitutes have threatened to strike, and doctors and hotel workers have staged brief walkouts, but Athenians seem nearly unanimous in their belief that the Games will be a success.

Athens is a world capital still trying to break into the ranks of the European elite, cities such as London, Paris, Copenhagen and Madrid. Athens has long been defined as having more bustle than hustle, viewed as a noisy, pulsing place and wildly active, but content with crumbling roads, antiquated sewage systems and a power grid that perpetually seemed ready to collapse at the use of just one more toaster.

Moving ahead

But over the past two years, and particularly over the past two weeks, Athenians have been working overtime. And while it is not difficult to find people here tired of the years of construction and the spiraling costs of holding the Olympics, those are gripes common to other Olympic cities.

"You can't build roads and make new stadiums without digging," said Sandrine Alegre, 35, an Athens native who was visiting from Crete. "The inconveniences were for good reason. Athens needed to start moving ahead."

Preparing the city has been a struggle. The cost of playing host to the Olympics is now projected to be $7.2 billion, 30 percent higher than estimated. The Olympic swimming pool will not have a roof, as was planned. Short-cuts have been taken in the construction of roads: Miles were built without drainage pipes underneath and will have to be torn up when the world returns home.

And with the Games scheduled to open Thursday, the work goes on. In the public squares around the city, workers continued last week to haul bags of cement on their shoulders, building one more set of stairs here, one more water fountain there, sweeping up one more dusty mess.

Last week, the International Olympic Committee deemed all venues fit for competitors and spectators. And if visitors run into a bit of unfinished construction on one public square or another, well, this is Athens.

`We told you so'

"We will not say, `We told you so,' but we told you so," said Dimitrios Katsoudas, a senior adviser to Mayor Dora Bakoyannis. "I wish it wasn't so, but the Greek way seems [to be] to wait to the last minute for things sometimes, but it is also the Greek way to succeed. Greece is a great country and Athens is a great city, and we cannot wait for the world to see that."

The deadline drive seems to have done Athens good. More than 150 miles of roads and highways have been constructed in the city and more than that repaired, 250,000 square yards of pavement have been laid, new subway stops have been built, and a new light-rail train is running from the suburbs, through the city and to the sea.

But at its heart, Athens has not changed much, many said last week, and they like that.

"Getting the Olympics was a good idea because we needed to rebuild, and this is the only thing that would make us do that," said Gerry Pagratis, 27, working one of the hundreds of kiosks dotting city sidewalks. "But come next year, you will still see those people over there sitting and drinking their coffee and talking, talking, talking - and then their workday is over.

"The biggest change is, now we have a lot of bills and no money," he said, laughing. "Maybe all of Greece will go to jail."

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