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Athens Olympics Organizers Race Against the Clock - 2004-07-03

Organizers of the Athens Olympic Games, slated to kick off in a little over five weeks, are racing against the clock to complete major sports venues and the transportation systems that will be crucial to the games' success. But the people involved in the project are convinced that everything will be ready on time.

It has been a desperate scramble these last few months to have everything ready by August 13, when the games will return to the country of their birth. Athens won its bid to host the games in 1997, but the organizational effort has been bogged down in a mire of bureaucratic infighting, missed deadlines and cost over-runs.

Only in the last three years, have the organizers, the government and construction firms managed to get their collective act together. And, since March, when a new government took power and made the Olympics its overriding priority, the general feeling in Athens is that things are now on track.

Stratis Stratigis, the first chairman of the organizing committee, is confident that all the Olympic facilities will be ready on time.

"They are going to be completed on time," he said. "It starts at a slow pace, and finishes at a crazy pace."

When Athens won its bid, 70 percent of the venues were close to being ready. But over the next three years, bureaucratic wrangling over how to manage the projects delayed completion of the remaining 30 percent. Mr. Stratigis, who resigned his post in 1999, recalls that no one in the government seemed to be in charge.

"It took about a year before everyone decided who's doing what and at what time and that also increased the cost, because there wasn't enough time to make calls for tenders and all those things," said Stratis Stratigis.

The initial budget of $5.5 billion to stage the Olympics has been overshot by about 30 percent, bringing the total cost so far to $7.2 billion. The biggest cost over-runs include a showcase glass and steel sliding roof for the Olympic stadium and landscaping projects at the main sports complex.

John Hadoulis, a reporter for the English-language Athens News, who has been covering the Olympic preparations for the past three years, says that, despite wasting the first four years after they won the right to host the games, the Greeks have finally caught up.

"They managed to do something that they obviously like to boast of," he said. "They managed to do seven years of work in just three. Now, obviously, anywhere else in the world, this is nothing to boast of, but here, amazingly, it is, because it is an amazing thing that they've managed to pull off. We've gone from where they were warned in 2000 that they might even lose the games, to the IOC [International Olympic Committee] praising them now."

John Golias, the general secretary of the Transportation Ministry, says all of the transportation systems specially built for the games, including a train from the airport into the city and a tramway to venues on the coast near Athens, will be ready by July 20.

"I think this and other projects are also images of what Greeks can do, if they really work under a strict organization plan," said John Golias.

Athens traffic is chaotic in the best of times, so Mr. Golias is urging his fellow Greeks, as well as visitors, to use public transportation during the games. Private cars, taxis and motorbikes will not be allowed to use special lanes that have been created for buses ferrying athletes, journalists and officials to the various sites. But he acknowledges, it will be hard to get Greeks to abandon their cars.

"What we say is that we offer an alternative that is acceptable," he said. "Whether they'll use it is something different. Of course, there will be an increase of travel time by car. This is for sure."

Athens News reporter John Hadoulis says test events at the venues he has visited have gone well, and that the facilities have earned praise from international athletes and trainers.

"Obviously, [it's] not the best thing to have everything ready at the last minute," said John Hadoulis. "But, if everything goes well, and from what the test events show, at least inside the stadiums, that's what's going to happen, who's going to talk about it afterwards?"

With its mad scramble to finish everything on time for the Olympics, what Greece now wants most of all is to earn the IOC president's traditional accolade, denied only to the Atlanta Games of 1996, that Athens hosted the best games ever.