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Olympic Torch Leaves Greece for Worldwide Tour - 2004-06-04

With only 10 weeks before the Olympic Games are due to begin, the Olympic flame has left Greece on a worldwide tour.

It was an emotional evening for many involved with the Athens Olympic effort. Dancers and diplomats from 27 nations gathered at the city's gleaming new airport Wednesday and waved off the Olympic flame on a 38-day tour designed to kickstart positive publicity for these already troubled Games.

Both Athens Olympic President Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki and International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge said the torch relay should spark an end to the sniping and a return to the core values of the Olympic movement.

But the flame will need to work a minor miracle if it is to reverse the welter of negative press these Games have been exposed to so far, both in Greece and abroad.

Building projects have been endlessly delayed and budgets have soared above estimates. Meanwhile, the threat of international terrorism has become a major concern of the Greek government and of athletes and spectators from around the world.

Many athletes have hinted that they might withdraw from the Games as a result. And far from triggering the bumper crop of tourists that had been hoped for, visitor numbers to Greece are actually down on average figures.

Indeed, according to Ted Kouloumbis, from the Greek Foreign Policy study organization Eliamep, the Olympic dream that Greece won the right to host in 1997 has turned into nothing short of a public relations nightmare.

"Once we've got them we have to follow through and, you know, at a minimum control the damage," he said. "The damage will be economic, especially if, because of some of the negative press that the Olympics have enjoyed, not all the people who were expected to come will come. So there will be a financial repercussion of this."

Now, even senior ministers from the Greek government have begun to wonder whether the Games are worth all the bother.

Public Works Minister Giorgos Souflias, who is in charge of several Olympic building sites, recently left colleagues in the Greek parliament aghast when he revealed he had, as he put it, "doubts as to whether we should have undertaken the Olympic Games."

This week, Finance Minister Giorgos Alogoskoufis announced that Greece's Olympic balance sheet had plunged into the red and that the country "would not have been so enthusiastic" to host the Games if it had known what was in store when it made its bid.

Mr. Alogoskoufis is from Greece's new conservative government, which is keen to put the blame for some Olympic mishaps on their Socialist predecessors, who were voted out of office in March.

But according to Mr. Kouloumbis, the finger pointing only masks deeper-seated concerns in the Greek cabinet.

"I think there is some finger pointing at the previous government," he said. "In the case of Mr. Souflias, the minister of Public Works, I think it's genuine in addition to finger pointing in the sense that he was always skeptical about the impact of the Olympics."

The admission by the two ministers that Greece's image abroad has suffered because of the Olympics has come as a shock in Athens. And a report released by accountancy firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers this week disclosed that the Greek economy's growth rate could fall by a huge 1.5 percent once the Olympics have come and gone.

So while the Olympic flame will be warming hearts from the frozen wastes in the Arctic to the samba beaches of Rio, it will still have to melt the frosty demeanor of some politicians back in Greece, who have begun to wonder whether the once cherished Greek Games were such a good idea after all.