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Last Updated: Friday, 27 August, 2004, 14:23 GMT 15:23 UK
Challenges for disabled in Athens
Matt Davis
By Matthew Davis
BBC News Online, Athens

The narrow, crowded streets of Athens have never been very friendly for disabled people. But with the city hosting the Olympics and Paralympic Games it has spent millions trying to put things right.

Disabled woman outside
Athens' narrow streets have always been difficult for the disabled
Organisers say public buildings are now wheelchair friendly and trains and buses have been refitted. An open air lift was even installed at the Acropolis.

Facilities for 4,000 athletes in the Paralympics which start on 17 September are said to be better than many hoped.

But disabled spectators say that for them it remains a very different story.

Athletics fan Edel Reck, 36, who has spina bifida and uses a wheelchair, said Athens' facilities were "the worst I have ever seen".

Ms Reck, from Wexford in south Ireland, is writing a guidebook for disabled travellers based on her experience of attending athletics events around the world.

"I am so fed up that I have cut my trip short and I am going home," she told BBC News Online.

Rome wasn't built in a day, and Athens will not become accessible overnight.
Miriam Wilkins, spokeswoman for the International Paralympic Committee

Last year she spent 2,000 euros on the best tickets in the main stadium, but when she arrived last week, she was told there was no wheelchair zone. "I was put high up in the stands, behind some railings. I was split up from my friends. The officials wouldn't let anyone come and sit with me.

"I felt humiliated and insulted," she added.

On finals night at the Helliniko baseball stadium, BBC News Online saw wheelchair users having to be carried up flights of stairs because of a lack of ramps and lifts.

Athens 2004 organisers say all facilities have disabled access - but if there is great demand, people may have to sit in other areas of the stadiums.

New initiatives

But there are general concerns about how far Athens has come in being an accessible city.

It may suffer by comparison with previous Olympics host Sydney.

Spyros Stavrianopoulos, President of the Hellenic Paralympic Committee in a wheelchair tries the newly inagurated elevator to the ancient Acropolis hill, in Athens Thursday Aug. 12, 2004
An elevator has been fitted for the Acropolis

The Centre for Accessible Environments charity said the 2000 Olympics and Paralympics were "an unqualified triumph in every respect, not least in setting a new benchmark for the accessibility of major sporting events".

Athens spent over 18.5 million euros on new initiatives to try and get close to the Sydney benchmark.

Some renovated and remodelled roads and pedestrian walkways now feature non-skid tiles, special pathways for the visually impaired and wheelchair access ramps.

The city ran a campaign targeted at restaurants and cafes, encouraging owners to provide access to disabled people.

And a new tactile museum, run by the Greek chapter of Lighthouse for the Blind, features dozens of reproductions of ancient statues that blind or partially sighted people can touch.

Problems remain

Miriam Wilkins, spokeswoman for the International Paralympic Committee, told BBC News Online: "Rome wasn't built in a day, and Athens will not become accessible overnight. But we hope that the work that has gone on will leave a legacy for the city."

British wheelchair athlete Tanni Grey Thompson has said organisers are "doing a good job" getting competition facilities ready for Paralympians.

But she said expectations had not been high.

"It's a whole lot better than we expected," said Grey Thompson, who raced in an 800m wheelchair exhibition event at the Olympics last Sunday.

Disabled woman in front of stairs
Edel Reck is so disappointed with facilities she is going home
But she added that there were "still a few little issues around the athletes village".

And Ms Reck had a further complaint: "The first day I arrived I got to my four-star hotel only to find the lift wasn't wide enough for my wheelchair.

"I was transferred to another hotel where they had a wheelchair ramp, but to reach it you had to go up two steps."

Athens Mayor Dora Bakoyannis said the city had changed at a "very fast pace".

"It's more accessible to people with disabilities. It has wider and better quality roads, refurbished hotels and renovated buildings," she said.

"Over all, Athens has become far friendlier for visitors and residents."

The Paralympic Games, running from 17-28 September, have always been held in the same year as the Olympic Games and since Seoul 1988 have taken place at the same venues.

They trace their origins to 1948 when Sir Ludwig Guttmann organised a sports competition involving World War II veterans with a spinal cord injury in Stoke Mandeville, England.

Four years later, competitors from Holland joined the games and the Paralympics were born.


SEE ALSO
Athens impresses Tanni
23 Aug 04  |  Disability Sport
Paralympic Q&A
20 Jul 04  |  Disability Sport
Flashback to Sydney
06 Jul 04  |  Disability Sport


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