Instead of view, fans of the sport get boot

Federation's president considers ban on public to be `utter nonsense'

Athens 2004

August 29, 2004|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

ATHENS - Of the 40 Olympic venues, only one had no spectators.

The Agios Kosmos Olympic Sailing Center, tucked along the coast just south of Athens, was a virtual fortress. The only people allowed in besides members of the Greek coast guard were reporters, competitors and the workers who provided support services.

Brightly colored flags from 61 countries lined the seawall separating the boat basin from the Saronic Gulf. Soft music wafted from outdoor loudspeakers. A souvenir stand sat at the entrance.

On the hottest days of these Olympics, when temperatures reached triple digits downtown, the sailing center's breezes made things bearable.

The sailing center, opened just two years ago, was all dressed up for a nautical party, but the fear of terrorism prevented the public from coming. The only spectators were those who paid to be on a large sightseeing boat that hovered at the edge of the racecourses.

Yesterday, frustration boiled over for Paul Henderson, president of the international sailing federation, known as ISAF. At a news conference announcing a 2007 regatta, Henderson criticized the Athens organizing committee and security forces.

"We did everything possible to get them to open it up to let the people in," he said. "They said it was security, but I think that is total and utter nonsense. There was no reason not to open it up."

Media access to the sailors also was tightly controlled.

"They don't want to be bothered before a race, but afterward, they want as much publicity as possible," Henderson said. "I went to the sailors [about access] and they said, `Great, no problem.'"

A spokesman for the Greek coast guard declined to give his name and declined to comment.

The sailors, most of them a social bunch used to mingling with fans, also found the isolation strange.

"When you're used to the Annapolis sailing scene, this seems pretty subdued," said Liz Filter of Stevensville, who sailed in the Yngling class.

Others in the sailing community said the sport missed an opportunity to recruit fans by showing off the world's best.

"Anytime we can showcase sailing to the general public, the better," said Fred Hagedorn, head of U.S. Sailing's Olympic Committee. "All of us like to see people enjoying sailing."

Henderson said the bright spot for him is knowing that, unlike many of the venues, the sailing center already has a post-Olympic life as a marina.

"It's based on Barcelona. They built it for $250 million and sold it for $350 million," he said of the 1992 Olympic site. "You come back here in five years and you'll see 30 restaurants and discos. When we first came here, this was mostly derelict waterfront. Now, what a legacy we've left."

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