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Greeks Say Everything Ready for Olympics - 2004-08-10


After years of finger-wagging over delays and inefficiency, Greek officials say that everything needed for the successful inauguration of the 2004 Olympic Games on Friday is ready, or just about. Local organizers and officials are both proud and relieved that they have managed to confound skeptics who thought Greeks lacked discipline and would never be ready for the big day.

With the eyes of the world focused on Athens, the city's mayor and the head of the organizing committee say that the three dozen major sporting venues are up and running. And the International Olympic Committee says it is pleased that the promises the Greeks made to have everything ready on time have been kept.

It has been a photo-finish, but Greek officials are now bursting with pride, not only because they made the deadline, but also because their efforts have given Athens new road and rail links and a host of gleaming new sports facilities.

The Greeks had seven years to get ready, but they procrastinated for nearly half that time, and, only lately, raced against the clock to complete the task at hand after warnings from international Olympic officials.

The city's mayor, Dora Bakoyannis, says Greeks have shown what they can do.

"I believe that today, with great satisfaction, we can say that we met the target," she said. "We are there."

Yes, she admits, there were some shortcuts taken. The Olympic swimming pool doesn't have a roof. And yes, city employees are even now working overtime to plant trees and build special curbs for the handicapped. But Mayor Bakoyannis says that, after all the criticism her country has received, Greece deserves a break.

That criticism has not been confined to the foreign news media. Even Greeks have complained that some road signs and bus and tram displays have not been translated for the benefit of foreign visitors.

Theodore Couloumbis, the director of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy, and a professor at the University of Athens, says he worries that any Greek shortcoming in the days ahead will be played up by the world media.

"If there is this kind of inattention to detail, this itself is going to be magnified a thousand times over, all over the world," he said. "I'm afraid there is no grace period. This is it."

Another concern for many Greeks is the fact that the original $5.5 billion budget for the games has grown dramatically. Some finance ministry officials say privately that the total cost of the Olympics could be twice that much.

But Mayor Bakoyannis says Greece has used the Olympics as a prod to complete projects long contemplated but never built, like new freeways, a new airport, a new ring road around the city. And she says it was worth it.

Having the Olympics, having the pressure, made us deliver," she said.

Only half of the more than five million tickets for Olympic events have been sold, but local television commercials practically pleading for people to come to the games have borne fruit. And in the past week, Greeks have flocked to buy tickets, even for sports in which they have never displayed interest, like badminton and table tennis.

Still, merchants are complaining that the number of visitors from abroad is not what they were expecting. The local newspapers say the shortfall is due to a sluggish international economy, the strong European single currency, fears of a potential terrorist attack during the games and difficulties in buying Olympic tickets overseas.

Despite that, Professor Couloumbis says the rush to get everything ready on time for the Olympics has given Greeks a new sense of self-esteem.

"I think sometimes that we will wake up on the 13th of August and we will look like someone who just got a fresh shave, a new suit, a new necktie, underarm deodorant, new car, ready, ready to show the best," he said.

And Mayor Bakoyannis, too, shrugs off the criticism Greece has received from skeptics who doubted that it could ever make up for lost time.

"We are proud. We are proud of the job we did," she said. "We are proud of our city today. We are proud of our country today."

The president of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogge, has given the Greeks his organization's vote of confidence, saying he expects them to stage what he called excellent games that will mark the Olympics' return to their Greek roots.

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