In spite of doubts, Greece just meets Olympic deadline

Athens Olympics

Opening ceremonies. TV: Ch. 11, 8 P.M.

August 13, 2004|By Randy Harvey | Randy Harvey,SUN STAFF

ATHENS - Seven years since they were awarded the 2004 Summer Olympics, but only four years since they began to seriously prepare for them, Greek organizers were finally able to say yesterday that they will be ready for the Games. Their assurances came not a moment too soon. The opening ceremony is scheduled for tonight at the Olympic Stadium.

"We rejoice rightfully today for the completion of the preparations," International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge said after organizers presented their final report.

They were not quite complete when he made his statement. Construction workers and landscapers were still putting the finishing touches on several venues, but they were far enough along to guarantee that approximately 10,500 athletes from a record 202 countries will have modern, and in some cases magnificent, facilities for the 15 remaining days of competition. Although the opening ceremony is tonight, competition actually began Wednesday with soccer games. And in an early upset, Iraq's men's soccer team defeated Portugal, 4-2, yesterday.

When the full schedule of events kicks in tomorrow, attention will turn to the Aquatic Center, where Michael Phelps, 19, of Rodgers Forge, begins his pursuit of Olympic history.

Phelps, a product of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, hits the water tomorrow morning (10 a.m. local time, 3 a.m. in Baltimore) in the preliminaries of the 400-meter individual medley. The world record-holder in the event, he is expected to win the final tomorrow night. By the time the swimming events end seven days later, Phelps will have answered the question of whether he can match or even surpass the record of seven gold medals set in swimming by Mark Spitz in 1972.

Katie Hoff, 15, of Abingdon, the youngest member of the U.S. team, also swims tomorrow in the women's 400 individual medley, one of her two events.

`Fire the imagination'

Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, the first woman to preside over a local Olympic organizing committee, said during her report to the IOC that the Games will be magical. "Excitement is growing," she said. "We believe Greece is going to fire the imagination of the world."

The opportunity to do that came at a high cost. The organizing committee predicts a small profit on its budget of $2.3 billion, but the Greek government reports that it has spent an additional $7.2 billion on infrastructure, including a new airport and expanded and improved subway system. Some estimate that the final cost might be as high as $12 billion.

But the cost to the Greeks' pride would have been much greater if the country where the Olympic Games began 2,780 years ago and were reborn as the modern Olympics in 1896 hadn't been able to organize them after winning a 10-year campaign for the IOC's nod.

"I don't have to remind you what we have gone through," Angelopoulos-Daskalaki said. "In Greece, things can work very rapidly, especially when they feel the deadline. ... The deadline is tomorrow."

The U.S. Olympic Committee has not revised its prediction that the nation's athletes will return home with 100 medals, three more than they won four years ago in Sydney, despite a scandal involving banned performance-enhancing drugs that deprived the track and field team of several star athletes. Marion Jones, who won three gold medals, a silver and a bronze in 2000, remains under investigation. She is entered in one event here, the long jump, but also is eligible for a relay.

The latest track athlete to be disqualified was Torri Edwards, reigning world champion in the 100 meters, who was suspended Wednesday for two years for taking a banned stimulant. Her final appeal is expected to be heard by the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport, which has established an office here for cases such as this and others that might surface during the Games.

Security issues

At least five other prominent U.S. athletes, men's basketball players, are not here by their own choice, saying they are concerned about security.

They were criticized yesterday by Dawn Staley, a WNBA player for the Charlotte Sting and three-time Olympian elected by U.S. athletes to carry the flag in the opening ceremony.

"For the men, the NBA is the lifetime dream and that's what they do," she said. "For us, the Olympics are the pinnacle. This is where you prove yourself against the highest level of competition. No one would ever say, `I'm not coming for security reasons.'"

To allay fears, the Greek government is spending $1.5 billion on security, five times more than was spent for the same purpose in Sydney and seven times more than was spent in Atlanta for the Summer Olympics in 1996. The Greeks also have assembled a security force of 70,000, composed primarily of police officers and soldiers, and have allowed into the country counterterrorism experts from several nations. The United States has 200 special forces troops here as part of a NATO team.

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