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Last Updated: Sunday, 11 January, 2004, 23:51 GMT
Athens starts final push
By Stuart Hughes
In Athens

Construction work continues in Athens
The city is one giant construction site

With just over 200 days to go until the opening ceremony, the signs that the Olympic Games are about to return to the country of their birth are inescapable.

It's not just the Olympic adverts and billboards that assault visitors from the moment they step off the plane at the new Athens airport.

The city is one giant construction project. Roads are being dug up, tram lines laid, stadiums and accommodation blocks built, and the skyline is studded with cranes.

The Greek population is all too aware that many expect Athens 2004 to be a failure, following two warnings from the IOC to speed up progress.

Greece is determined to prove wrong those who believe the country won't be ready by 13 August.

A general election on 7 March could lead to a change in government but Greece's politicians are promising to resist the temptation to make capital out of the Games.

The IOC says it has had assurances that Greece's political parties won't let the Olympics become a divisive issue during campaigning.

"All preparations are progressing according to plan and we are not worried by the election," insisted an official from the Athens Organizing Committee.

The logistics involved in staging Athens 2004 are staggering; a budget of almost 2bn euros, 5.3 million ticketed spectators watching 10,500 athletes competing in 28 sports in 35 different venues.

The proceedings will be covered by more than 21,000 media representatives and policed by more than 40,000 security officials.

In the centre of Athens, indications that the city will be ready to host the Games are generally encouraging - the main Olympic Stadium is taking shape and the new Olympic roads are gradually opening up.

Still, the timetable for completion of some of the major projects is worryingly tight.

The final months of preparation will be rather like an episode of the television show Changing Rooms, with builders rushing against the clock to complete the transformation.

Not that too many Athenians will be enjoying the Games in person.

A constant complaint among people living in the city is that they can't afford to buy tickets for the competitions taking place in own backyards.

Many of those that can are still planning to head to their home towns or islands during August to escape the gridlocked streets and hordes of Olympic tourists.

They hope to profit by renting out their houses and apartments to visitors.

Other Athenians, though, are choosing to stay put.

The Olympic Games represent a lucrative cash bonanza for the city.

Bar owners, hoteliers, shopkeepers and taxi drivers say they intend to make hay while the sun shines.

As the clock counts down, the organizers of Athens 2004 insist they'll be ready by the time the Olympic Torch arrives.

They have no choice but to ensure they are.





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