Olympian effort needed to save Athens Games

t was the Greeks whose ancient language produced the word “chaos.” And that word seems unnervingly apt these days when describing the state of preparations for the Olympic Games scheduled here in 2004.

In a country that readily admits its cultural tendency to procrastinate, it is hardly surprising that the race to welcome 11,000 athletes and an estimated one million visitors is going to be dramatic.

Less than 26 months before the Games begin, work has yet to begin at several major facilities. A tram system connecting key venues is not expected to be complete until the last possible moment, and organizers have had trouble finding volunteers.

Greek officials deny that they are ill-prepared or that any of the 1,800 Games-related projects won’t be finished by August 2004.

Fanni Palli-Petrallia, a New Democracy Party member of Greece’s parliament and former minister of sports, said coyly: “We cross our fingers and hope everything will be all right.”

Time will be short to finish certain projects in 18 months. Work has been especially slow on the Hellinikon Olympic Complex at the old airport in south Athens. Converted hangars and new construction will house eight events. But little progress has been made there.

The same is true at the Panathinaikon Stadium in central Athens, where the 2004 marathon will finish.

Today, weeds sprout from cracks in its marble, litter is strewn about and graffiti have been sprayed on walls. Organizers and government officials argue that little more than sprucing up is required there and at other existing facilities.

Due to a 15 year hotel building ban, rooms are in short supply.

85,000 hotel beds are open within 75 miles of Athens for the estimated 100,000 overnight guests expected each of the 16 days. Spyros Capralos, executive director of Athens 2004, said organizers hoped to make up some of the difference by docking 12 cruise liners in the port as floating hotels. Other visitors, he said, may stay on islands and come in by boat or plane for the day.

In this famously congested city, less than half the nearly 120 miles of new road, tramway, suburban rail and bus lanes needed to serve major facilities has been completed.

To be sure, rapid progress has been made on some projects. The 2,296-apartment Olympic village in north Athens that will house athletes in 32 sports, as well as their coaches and trainers, is two months ahead of schedule.

A clock along a busy highway outside the Olympic Sports Complex counts the 760 days left until the opening ceremonies Aug. 13, 2004.

Costas Cartalis, the Greek Ministry of Culture’s general secretary for the Olympic Games, said: “We still have 26 months, and we count the days.”