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Last Updated: Friday, 11 June, 2004, 14:08 GMT 15:08 UK
Athens stadium on track

By Richard Galpin
BBC correspondent in Athens

Never say never again. It should be the mantra of the Athens Olympic Organisers and the Greek government.

Women's pole vault during the Greek track and field championships at the Olympic stadium of Athens
The Greek athletics championships are a test-run for the Olympics
They have endured years of criticism that the sports venues and new transport systems would never be ready in time for the opening ceremony of the Athens Olympics on 13 August.

But now, at the eleventh hour, it seems Greece is beginning to confound its critics.

Appropriately, the actor Sean Connery - who played British secret agent James Bond in the film Never Say Never Again - was in the Greek capital this week waxing lyrical about the forthcoming Olympics.

Pictured in the middle of the main stadium with his hands raised high in tribute rather than surrender, he told journalists he hopes to juggle his filming schedule to be able to attend the Athens Olympics.

For those who doubted deadlines could be met, walking into the stadium now leaves deep impressions
"I am sure the Games are going to be a huge success," he said.

"They will be different, because Greece is different. I definitely want to come."

And now the main stadium has re-opened for business after undergoing two years of renovation work for the Games.

Test-run

It is currently hosting the Greek athletic championships at which the country's top stars are competing for a place in the national Olympic squad as well as to represent Greece at a major European competition later this month.

Olympic officials are using the event to test the sports facilities, transport systems, security, medical services and hi-tech equipment.

Workers walk on top of the steel-and-glass roof of the Olympic stadium
Work continues on the stadium during the athletics competition

For those of us who at times doubted whether the deadlines could be met, walking into the stadium now is an experience which leaves deep impressions.

Less than three months ago we filmed the stadium and were amazed that in the centre there was just a large hole and a pile of mud and rubble.

The roof being built just outside the huge concrete stands was a mere skeleton - a few large steel tubes being slowly fitted together.

Now the holes, mud and rubble have been replaced by a brand-new athletics track and lush green turf for the javelin, discus and football competitions.

The facilities for all the other field events are also in place.

And above is the extraordinary futuristic roof - the two halves having slid together perfectly.

Athletes and officials taking part in the national championships now under way at the stadium have been impressed.

"The facilities are very nice," said Katerina Thanou, the Greek 100-metres champion after running her first race.

I can imagine construction workers still gainfully employed the night before the opening ceremony
"I think we need to fix a few things a little for the athletes, but it's going to be ok. It's fantastic."

Even senior members of the Athens Olympic organising committee admitted they were astonished by the transformation of the stadium in recent months.

But for all this optimism a simple fact remains - it has still not been fully completed and there are just 63 days to go before the opening ceremony.

Frenzied activity

Even as athletes raced around the track, builders continued to work on the stadium and the roof.

Spectators listened to a strange cacophony of sports announcements, tinny music, hammers, drills and saws.

Building work is even more intense in the area surrounding the stadium and the other sports venues in the main Olympic complex.

Bulldozers, rollers, excavators and cranes are all engaged in frenzied activity to try to complete the entrance roads, car-parks, perimeter fences and landscaping before August.

The government says everything will be ready by next month including all the venues and the new public transport systems.

But 'ready' is a word open to a variety of interpretations.

Personally, I can imagine construction workers still gainfully employed the night before the opening ceremony.

But it should just be the finishing touches.



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