Vol. 4 Num 76 Mon. August 11, 2003  

Athens 2004
2004 Games on track?

As preparations for the 2004 Athens Olympics enter the final straight, construction delays are still giving the International Olympic Committee (IOC) some serious headaches.

"If anything unexpected beyond our control would happen, then some of the projects would be at risk," IOC inspector Denis Oswald said during one of his regular visits to Greece.

Despite the warnings, the days when international media heaped scorn upon Greeks for dragging their feet and IOC officials threatened organisers in couched terms with relocating the Games unless they got their act together, are over.

IOC president Jacques Rogge said early August that he expected the Athens Olympics to be "the greatest in history, in many areas."

In January, Rogge compared organisers' work with syrtaki, a Greek folk dance.

"One starts very slowly, then accelerates all the time and at the end one cannot keep the pace anymore," the IOC chief said.

But, with just a year to go the big event, there are still plenty of Olympic projects where progress resembles more of a waltz, in which dancers move around in circles.

A planned new tramway, scheduled to provide a key link between downtown Athens and the city's southern sea-sports venues, is running into delays even before its rails are laid. Local residents and MPs have filed a spate of court actions to derail the project.

"It will be very, very tight," said Oswald, asked if he believed the tramway will be ready in time for the Olympics.

Time-consuming appeals also forced organisers to take a shortcut in designing the future suburban train planned to link Athens with its new international airport, hitherto only available by road. The track's distance was cut by a third to 32 kilometres (19 miles).

Plans to house the games' visitors are also slow in taking off. More than 100,000 visitors a day will be in Athens during the Games, tourist industry players estimate. With 80 per cent of the city's thin hotel capacity already taken up by Olympics officials, a programme to rent private homes out to visitors appeared as the only option to solve the looming accommodation crisis.

But the programme is still stalled, as real estate agents, government and Greece's meddling National Tourism Organisation still bicker over the amount of fees and charges due.

"We're already preparing, but no house has been officially rented yet. The longer it takes for the programme to take off, the more the black market is favoured," said an executive involved in the programme.

Worries are also aired over the construction of the Karaiskaki stadium, the key venue for the Games' football competition. Last-minute haggling between the government and the football club which will use the stadium after its completion led to a postponement of construction works.

An initially scheduled 45-day safety margin between the stadium's completion and the start of the games already seems certain to melt away. But the international football federation FIFA says they are still confident the works will be wrapped up in time.

A question mark also literally hangs over the Games' main Olympic stadium. The timely completion of an ambitious project to cover it with a glass-metal roof construction is still in doubt. The Greek government has insisted the roof will be ready in time.

But International Olympic Committee (IOC) sources have said the roof was expendable. The IOC apparently fears the prospect of the Games taking place in a half-built stadium.

Past construction delays have come back to haunt Olympic test events. IOC experts fear some of them, notably the ones for canoe-kayak and swimming, might have to be postponed as their respective venues will be completed later than foreseen.

Eventual test-event delays "limit the time to adjust to problems," Oswald warned.

Last but not least, a recent slash in the budget for fitting out the venues up to Olympic standards also creates fears of the Games taking place in sub-standard facilities in 2004.

The fit-out cost was initially estimated at 733 million euros (840 million dollars). The government and organisers fought for months about how to share the cost between themselves.

In July, the government practically confirmed reports the fit-out budget was cut by up to 70 per cent. The cost was "re-evaluated," the minister in charge said.

The government insisted the Games were still on track to come in within their overall budget of 4.6 billion euros.