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Last Updated: Friday, 26 March 2004, 08:18 GMT
Viewpoint: Olympic mess of a preparation
By George Kassimeris
Greek political commentator

Olympic history has been made in the breathtakingly beautiful ruins of ancient Olympia.

For the first time, the Olympic torch is going global, passing through all six continents and making its journey through 34 cities in 27 countries before returning to the Greek capital in August for the opening ceremonies.

It is a ritual that will traverse, at least symbolically, the grand expanse of three millennia of Western civilization, a spectacle revered by the country where both the Olympics and the marathon were born.

Flame-lighting ceremony in Athens
Greek campaigns say the Olympics are coming home
Sounds romantic, doesn't it? But with 140 days to go before the start of the Games, the only sound here in Athens is that of jackhammers and bulldozers working round the clock in an all-out sprint to make up for lost time.

To no-one's surprise Greek Olympic preparations are running behind schedule. This being Greece, it was expected.

What wasn't expected is that with the Games so close, only 24 out the 39 Olympic venues would be fully completed.

In 2000 the Australians had finished all major buildings in Sydney a year before, aware that facilities should be available well in advance for vital testing, training and security purposes.

But Greece is no Australia and therefore the marathon route is still not completely paved and the main Olympic stadium is missing its roof. According to the latest deadline, it won't be ready until three weeks before the Games open.

Growing concern

Part of a 32km suburban rail connection to the Athens airport hasn't even started and a 24km tramway which will carry spectators to the seaside venues is still under construction.

And, as if all this weren't depressing enough, government and opposition have turned the Olympic delays into political football, trading bitter words and accusations over the whole mess.

It is scarcely a surprise, then, that the prevailing feeling here in Athens is one of, how shall I put it, mounting concern. Talk in newspapers, offices, buses, bars and restaurants is all much the same: can Athens make the 13 August deadline?

Work at the ancient Acropolis hill, in Athens
Greece is the smallest country to host the Games since Finland in 1952 but there are no excuses. We have had seven years to get ready
The situation couldn't be more embarrassing. The Athens 2004 Olympic Games - to be held in the country that invented them in 776 BC and hosted the first modern Games back in 1896 - were meant to be a source of national pride and of a new beginning.

Certainly, there has been a lot of "The Games are coming home" and "Greece will show in the Games its modern face" rhetoric by the organising committee. But what Greece has shown so far is her true face.

Greece, as we Greeks do not tire of reminding everyone, is the birthplace of democracy and the cradle of western civilization and all that.

But it is also a country where the official in charge of Olympic projects - a political appointee of the previous socialist government - resigns 163 days before the opening ceremony because he doesn't want to work for the newly-elected conservative government.

Hosting an Olympic Games is a colossal task for any nation. There's no doubt about it. All the countries that have done it, have felt in their bones how difficult it is to gear the whole machinery of the state up to what has become a genuinely global event.

Morale boost

So staging the Olympics, after the brilliant success of Sydney, in a country of just under 11m people overloaded with problems was always going to be a massive challenge, if not a gamble, for both the International Olympic Committee and the country itself.

True, Greece is the smallest country to host the Games since Finland in 1952 but there are no excuses. We have had seven years to get ready for the Games.

When the International Olympic Committee awarded Athens the Games in 1997 there was great excitement. Winning the bid was unquestionably a boost for morale, fulfilling our psychological need for international recognition and providing the country with the sense that it is now in the first rank.

Aerial view of the Main Olympic Sport Complex in Maroussi
The clock is ticking away for work to be completed
Many Greeks also saw the Games as a catalyst that would facilitate much-needed modernisation in areas such as construction, transportation, telecommunications and information technology where Greece is lagging so far behind.

More than that, it was a major test of the country's ability in organising a major international event without turning the whole thing into an orgy of chaos, waste, inefficiency, corruption and exploitation for the tax-paying public.

The astronomical budget of $6bn and rising is already under scrutiny by the new government.

An Olympics can do wonders (Barcelona, Sydney) or incalculable damage (Montreal, Atlanta) to a city's, and subsequently a country's, worldwide reputation.

Greece's Olympic mess of a preparation has shown to the world the worst, chaotic Balkan side of our country. Which is certainly not what we Greeks had in mind when we started our Olympian crusade seven years ago.

But the clock is ticking away towards the big event and the Greeks, between now and the 29 August closing ceremony, must get our act together and finally match some of our "best and secure Games ever" rhetoric with action. The whole world is waiting.

George Kassimeris, a Greek political commentator and a Senior Research Fellow at Wolverhampton University, is the author of Europe's Last Red Terrorists.

What do you think? Is Greece recovering well from a poor start or is it disgracing itself?

This debate is now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.

After working for the last 8 years in Greece, I'm sure everything will be ready but not before 12/8 midnight! Project Management in Greece has a despair phase just before completion..
George Marks, Athens, Greece

After the Millenium Dome and the Jubilee Line extension, I don't think we are in any position to comment.
Andy P, London

Well having purchased a villa in Greece, I am not in the least but surprised that building is falling behind. I hope the Greek gods are looking down on the construction work taking place and lend them a much needed hand. Otherwise, well, can the Olympics be put off for next year?
Vadim Smith, Moscow, Russia

Greece is Greece and its going to be just fine. Why does everything has to be so perfect? Most of African countries haven`t got tracks where people can run, but they still win medals. Lots of teams are not provided with proper gear because they can't afford it but they still win. Those games are great opportunity for people to meet, it must be wonderful experience, specially in a beautiful country like Greece.
Bran, Serbia

The Olympic games of Athens will be unique and successful. We are hardly fit to criticise preparation and construction work progress, when we live in a country that built the Dome, the swinging millennium bridge, and trains can't get from A to B. Instead of talk and black propaganda, we should keep quiet, wait and judge from the result. Athens will be ready and as it has proved with all the huge events it has organised in the last decade, it will deliver. These Olympics will not be an Australian or any other party. It will be the Olympics organised by the people that invented them and know what Olympics really are.
Vangelis, London

I think Greece is a wonderful country. I really hope for their sakes that they can get it together in time for the games and that they haven't bitten of more than they can chew. I also hope that the construction methods and materials are of highest quality and standards. Let's hope they can pull it off. Fingers crossed
Cecilia Sharron, Munich, Germany

Negative publicity won't help the projects under way, nor the outcome of the games in general!
VoulPa, Athens Greece

I think it is possible to make the best games and I don't think that there wasn't a same kind of chaos in ancient times too. It is a characteristic of the Greeks and it would be a pity to lose it, because it has its charm. Not though in organizing such events. At least I think that the visitors will enjoy the hospitality and great weather and food of Greece!
Panagiotis Papakioupas, Kalampaka, Greece

It is the result that counts, so let's save the criticism until after the deadline
Alex, London UK

A lot has been said, published, rumoured about the "chaotic" preparation for the Olympic venues, already portraying an image of failure. At the end of the day, it is the result that counts, so let's save the criticism until after the deadline, when the critics will either say exactly the same things they say now, or keep quiet and wish their articles are buried somewhere in a file never to be read again.
Alex, London UK

I think the Greek politicians are fooling themselves to think the Olympic Campaign will be a financial success. From the outside, it may eventually run smoothly. But the reality will be un-finished contracts and wasted resources. The only people reaping any rewards will be the so called organisers. The Greece tax payer will be paying for this campaign for many years to come. Even so, Greece will do a tremendous job of providing a good spectacle.
Nathan , Bounemouth

Greece runs itself differently and is more laid back. I'm sure that they will have it all ready in time, just a different approach.
Max Richards, England

Having worked on a Greek island I can say that the Greeks are the most friendly people I have ever met but they work on 'maybe' time. The intention to do tasks is there but like these Olympic preparations things never get done on time or even anywhere near on time. A passion for the Olympics is big within Greece but the get-up and go is not.
Craig Cooper, Middlesbrough, England

I am Greek Cypriot by ethnicity, though I consider myself to be British because I was born here and have lived here all my life. All I can say about the preparation for the Games is: typical. Us Greeks can't organise the opening of a door without corruption, political bickering, and total waste and inefficiency rearing their ugly heads from the very start. Organising the Olympic Games is a gargantuan task, and considering we made such a fuss about not getting the 1996 Games (the 'centenary' Games of the modern era), it's doubly humiliating that eight years later we still haven't even finished the main stadium.
George Lewis, London, UK

I love Greece and the Greek people and wish them success for the impending Olympic Games. Having said that, the Greeks are often their own worst enemy and can exhibit an astounding indifference and insensitivity to the needs of the millions of visitors their country receives each year. As a mature student of classical civilisation I was in Greece last October and found many of the sites and museums closed or with restricted access. The National Archaeological Museum in Athens and the museum at Olympia (two of the foremost museums in the country) were both closed for refurbishment with no arrangements made for temporary display of their collections. If Greece wants to make the case for the British Museum to return the Parthenon sculptures to Athens - something that in principle I agree with - it really does need to treat its friends more sympathetically.
Tom Hill, East Molesey, UK

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