Feature

Greece’s Olympic Gamble

The Summer Olympics are set to begin in Athens in less than three months. But construction of athletic venues, security systems, and transportation is way behind schedule. Will the Summer Games turn into a fiasco?

Why did Athens land the Games?For one reason—history. Greece is both the birthplace of the ancient Olympic Games (back in 776 B.C.) and the site of the first modern Games, in 1896. In making its pitch to the International Olympic Committee in 1997, Greece heavily played its tradition card. Some events would take place at Olympia, the site of the first ancient Games and their namesake. The marathon would start on the plains of Marathon—where the 26.2-mile race got its name—and would follow the original route taken by the Greek messenger who ran to Athens, in 490 B.C., to declare victory over the Persians. Cyclists would pedal past the Acropolis, the birthplace of Western civilization. The Greeks also promised to be ready with the modern infrastructure and venues the Games now require. “We are proud of our heritage and history,” said Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, the chief Olympic organizer. “But we want to show what we are able to do now.”

What has Greece shown?So far, not nearly enough. The Greeks joke about a national proclivity for procrastination, and they have been true to form. The then ruling Socialist government let three years slip by without making much progress. The biggest projects were eventually contracted to internationally respected companies, but much of the work was subcontracted to politically connected Greek companies—to a “cousin of a cousin of a minister,” as one paper put it. Many of these firms used low-paid, inexperienced workers. The work has been so amateurish that more than 100 workers have died in construction accidents. Some projects were held up by the discovery of archaeological treasures, others by bankruptcies. The cost of the Olympics has spiraled to $6.6 billion, $1.2 billion over budget. “What we are seeing is Greece’s incompetence being laid bare,” said Costis Hadjidakis, a prominent conservative politician.

How bad is it?Pretty close to disastrous. With fewer than 100 days before the lighting of the Olympic flame, on Aug. 13, Athens is one vast construction site. Roads and squares are filled with gaping holes and piles of dirt; a frantic procession of cranes and mixers has brought the city’s traffic to a standstill. As of last week, only 15 of 39 sports venues were ready. Track for the trams that connect Athens’ city center to the coastal sports venues and that link the airport to the main subway system has not been fully laid—prompting fears that the Games will be paralyzed by gridlock. At the main Olympic Stadium, an elaborate $250 million glass and steel roof was finally installed last week. But the 75,000-seat stadium still has no seats. Nonetheless, Greek officials swear they’ll be ready for the 10,500 athletes, 21,500 journalists, and millions of spectators expected to invade this city of 4 million.

How is that possible?In March, national elections were held and the Socialists were ousted by the Conservatives. The new premier, Costas Karamanlis, personally took charge of Olympic preparation, vowing to cut through the red tape and cronyism. “The entire image of modern Greece will be judged” by the Games, Karamanlis declared. For the last few months, crews have literally been working around the clock, while officials have conducted a massive triage, downscaling some projects and eliminating others. They abandoned plans to put a roof over the swimming arena, prompting complaints from swimmers that their performances would suffer in the hot summer sun. But such concerns pale in comparison with those raised over the Games’ vulnerability to a terrorist attack.

How real is that risk?Most intelligence experts think it’s very real. Greece has notoriously porous borders and lies at the volatile crossroads of Europe, the Balkans, and the Middle East. Al Qaida and affiliated Islamic terror groups, the experts fear, may view Athens as a convenient place to strike a blow against Western nations, by targeting their athletes or large groups of their citizens. Authorities are also concerned about more than a dozen Greek left-wing and anarchist groups that have set off dozens of bombs in recent years, killing 23 people.

What steps are being taken?Authorities have put together a team of 50,000 security personnel and a policing budget of $1.2 billion—three times the amount spent in Sydney four years ago. A $320 million security network of cameras, sensors, and computers is supposed to give police and security officials a view of every inch of the city. But U.S. officials doubt that it will be of much use. Fiber-optic cable is still being laid, leaving little time to debug the system or to teach security officials how to use it. “I think the security situation is a work in progress,” said Sen. Gordon Smith, who chairs a Senate subcommittee with Olympic oversight.

What if Greece isn’t ready?Few actually believe the Games won’t happen, but at this point, it’s hard to see how they can run smoothly. Last month, the International Olympic Committee took the unprecedented step of purchasing cancellation insurance for $170 million. But the Greeks say that while a few minor problems may crop up during the Games, all will turn out well. “We are similar to the nonfavorite runner in a marathon who is not noticed as he struggles somewhere in the middle,” said Athens Mayor Dora Bakoyanni. “But we are optimistic that this runner bursts ahead in the final laps, surprising the world and, perhaps, even himself.”

A city transformed

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