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Athens Olympic Stadium Makes Debut - 2004-06-10


The roof is finally in place over the Olympic stadium in Athens, easing some of the concerns about preparations and enabling sports, rather than controversy, to move to the center of attention in the final weeks before the summer games.

Only about 8,000 seats have been installed, and much of the venue still resembles a building site, but athletes finally arrived at the Olympic Stadium in Athens this week.

They may not be the sporting superstars from across the globe expected for the Olympics in August, but the Greek athletes at the Pan Hellenic Games are just as important to local organizers.

The runners are proving that the main stadium is serviceable for athletics, and that come August it should be ready for tens-of-thousands of spectators and a worldwide television audience.

Above the athletes' heads, finally, is the controversial and often criticized roof designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. For many months, it symbolized the problems that plagued these Olympic Games. The design seemed overambitious, and the construction was so difficult that the roof project came close to being scrapped.

But local organizers got the job done at the last minute. The 15,000-ton roof is in place to protect spectators and athletes from the fierce summer sun.

Greece's alternate culture minister Fanny Palli-Petralia, who has been appointed by Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis to oversee preparations for the Games, told VOA earlier this week that the three-day Pan Hellenic games would prove to be a turning point in the fortunes of the Athens Olympics.

"Well it is a significant moment because this stadium became the symbol of the Olympic Games because of the Calatrava roof there," she said. "We have the Pan Hellenic Championship of track and field and you will have the opportunity to look and see one of the most spectacular stadiums in the world."

But it has not been easy getting to this stage. Work was not begun on the Games for three years after Greece won the right to host them in 1997. And only three months ago a change of government prompted fears of further disruption to the preparations.

The new government's General Secretary for the Games, Spyros Capralos, himself a former Olympic waterpolo player, said this week that he had been swimming only in his own sweat to get everything ready on time.

There are still many things to accomplish. But at last, it appears that the end of the work is in sight. But even as attention shifts to sports, economic concerns remain.

The budget has skyrocketed in recent years, with some analysts predicting the final cost might be double initial estimates of $6 billion. But Minister Palli-Petralia says Greece's people and government are willing to pay any price for a successful Games, no matter what the financial repercussions might be later.

"The previous budget is non-realistic. Yes the budget will increase. The Greek government is going to support the budget and we do not make any reduction to anything. We will afford it and we will face it," she said. "You know Greek people what they want is to be proud for their country and be proud of themselves that they will host a unique Games."

What remains to be seen is whether Greece's great gamble with the Games will spark an economic boom, or whether the financial burden will prompt a slump once the athletes have all gone home.