One Hellenic Situation Sinking boats, 60,000 stray dogs and protesting hookers: With the Olympics less than a year away, Athens has a lot of work to do

September 07, 2003

This summer brothel workers in Athens banded together to protest
the sudden tightening of a previously ignored law that bans them
from operating near schools, churches and civic centers--thus
distancing them from next year's Olympic venues. Keen to tap the
revenue that the Games-goers will bring, the unhappy hookers
arranged rallies, marched through the red-light district and even
took legal action with the Council of State.

If only the rest of the city were so organized. Stop us if you
heard this story about Barcelona and other host cities of the
past, but with less than a year before the Aug. 13 opening
ceremonies, Athens has some big, fat Olympic problems. Many
venues are incomplete and behind schedule, and the city's hotel
beds are in danger of being overbooked.

Truth be told, the delays are understandable. Athens faces the
burden of upgrading its long-neglected infrastructure to
accommodate the nearly two million additional people expected
over the 17 days of competition. Besides constructing arenas, the
city has had to create roads, finish a new international airport
and revamp its subway system. "We are not organizing for two
weeks next year," Greece's culture minister, Evangelos Venizelos,
said last month. "We are organizing the future of the country for
the next few decades."

Meanwhile, as workers stir up the soil, they keep encountering
the past. All major construction in Athens must be okayed by
archaeologists. Where else but Greece do guys with jackhammers
have to leave off after unearthing a 2,500-year-old temple of
Aphrodite--as happened during preparation of a site for
equestrian events in the town of Markopoulo. Elsewhere, the
discovery of stone homes built 4,500 years ago delayed
construction at a rowing and sailing venue while the dwellings
were carefully moved.

Add to that more modern issues, such as what to do with the
city's 60,000 stray dogs (one recently bit a Ukrainian archery
coach who was jogging in a park next to the competition venue)
and figuring out a way to feed all the visitors without setting
off an international incident (the German rowers pulled out of
last month's test event after several team members got salmonella
from their hotel food). In mid-August, Greek prime minister
Costas Simitis felt compelled to say, "We do not have the
illusions that everything is perfect."

What's most worrisome is the question of security. During a drill
last month, authorities failed to detect explosives brought into
a test event, heightening concern that the nearly 50,000-person
Olympic security force may be no match for the country's porous
borders. "Security for Salt Lake City was child's play compared
to Athens," says Alex Gilady, the IOC member from Israel. "Here
you have [Greek] islands near the Middle East."

One can only hope potential troublemakers fare no better than the
first wave of visiting athletes. At last month's World Junior
Rowing Championships in Schinias, an Olympic coastal site 20
miles from Athens that's prone to heavy gusts and choppy seas,
U.S. and British vessels took on too much water and sank. Other
test events--in canoe slalom, judo, fencing and modern
pentathlon--were moved or postponed because of problems at their
facilities. No wonder Denis Oswald, the IOC's chief inspector for
the Games, implored Greeks to work "miracles" to get ready in

The Games will undoubtedly be rich in history (marathoners, for
example, will retrace Pheidippides's fatal run from Marathon to
Athens in 490 B.C.), and optimists in the IOC note that the 1992
Barcelona Olympics were plagued by construction and security woes
a year out but came off superbly. If the city's namesake, Athena,
isn't inspiration enough--she is the goddess of wisdom and
crafts--Olympic organizers can turn for hope to Athens's ladies
of the evening. Last week, after some 150 licensed prostitutes
led a downtown vigil, government officials announced they would
relax the laws designed to keep the women away from Olympic
venues. Whatever else happens in Athens next summer, the world
will get a warm welcome.
--Brian Cazeneuve


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