Not all is golden as Athens leaves starting blocks

Glitches: Heat and transit woes mark the first full day.

The Games

Athens Olympics

August 15, 2004|By Randy Harvey and Candus Thomson | Randy Harvey and Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

ATHENS -- Near the Helliniko Olympic Complex, south of the city center, one of the sparkling new trains pulled out of the station yesterday, then suddenly stopped.

The engineer hopped out of his compartment, crowbar in hand, and walked to the front of the bullet-shaped train, where he began banging on the track.

Passengers looked concerned. What could have gone wrong with the most recent addition to the city's mass transit system?

"It's nothing," said the engineer's assistant. "He's making manual adjustments."

The engineer proceeded to loudly and dynamically "adjust" one of the tram's doors before returning to his compartment and resuming the journey.

Athenians proved industrious yesterday in coping with transportation and communications problems, none of them extraordinary for the first full day of competition in the Summer Olympics. It is normal for glitches to occur early in an event that brings 10,500 athletes, 5,000 coaches, trainers and administrators, more than 20,000 media members and up to a half-million tourists to town for two weeks.

One thing Athenians couldn't do anything about was the heat.

By 10 a.m., when the swimming competition began at the Olympic Aquatic Centre, the temperature on the pool deck had reached 88 degrees. Before the morning session ended, the mercury had risen to almost 100. Olympic organizers were not surprised by the heat, having planned a roof for the pool but abandoning the effort when they ran out of time for construction.

The swimmers were not affected, waiting in shade before diving into the water. In fact, Bob Bowman, who coaches Michael Phelps, said swimmers prefer warm water.

"Cold water is what slows you down," Bowman said.

But spectators huddled under umbrellas or makeshift canopies. Some men took off their shirts. One put his sunglasses on the metal bench beside him, then complained that they burned his face when he put them back on.

There was more refuge for spectators who watched the men's cycling road race on Athens streets. They lined up five and six deep at the start-finish line at Omonia Square at 12:45 p.m., but quickly retreated into the surrounding cafes, bars and fast-food restaurants for refreshment.

Organizers tried to help the cyclists as much as possible, allowing team cars to provide their riders with water throughout the race instead of just at one feed station. Doctors told the organizers that riders would risk overheating if they didn't drink at least 10 liters of water during the 139.4-mile race.

The cyclists faced other perils as well. Riding on a course that had been criticized because of its tight turns and oil spots and even cobblestones on the path surrounding the Acropolis, three riders, including medal favorite Igor Astarloa of Spain, were forced out of the race on the first lap because of a crash.

Besides the heat, organizers are also concerned about other elements. Forecasts for high winds have caused them to reduce the time between today's races at the rowing venues from 10 minutes to seven so that the competition can finish earlier than scheduled. They are hoping to avoid the disaster that occurred on the same course on the first day of the world junior championships last year, when several boats overturned. Photographs ran worldwide of rowers in the water hanging onto their boats.

Otherwise, the snafus yesterday were the same ones that have struck previous local organizing committees.

No athletes were reported to have missed their competitions because of transportation problems, as has happened in some Games, but some official media buses were late or didn't show at all.

In one case, a bus driver stopped while returning from the sailing center to pick up a friend and then ended the route miles short of the designated destination. Riders had to disembark from the bus and take taxis. The information system in the main press center, which provides results from the competitions, also crashed at one point.

When it was restored, media members were referred to the information system to read an official statement about the glitch from the organizing committee. The statement read: "The information you are requesting is not available."

Organizers did not comment yesterday on other problems, except to deny a report from an Australian newspaper Web site saying the Olympic flame over the main stadium, which is supposed to burn throughout the Games, had been extinguished for 20 minutes. Organizers said they merely turned it down for adjustments, presumably not with a crowbar.

There was an unwelcome blaze two miles north of Athens, however, when chief Olympic organizer Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki threw a party at her hillside villa.

Fireworks set off at the mansion caused a fire in the nearby wooded area, burning out of control for nearly an hour, police said. Sixty firefighters were called to the scene and put out the blaze. No one was hurt.

Sun staff writer Paul McMullen and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

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