A Sprint to the Finish On a mad dash from Athens to ancient Olympia, the author lives out the chaos of Greece's final, frantic preparations

Aug. 02, 2004
Aug. 02, 2004

Table of Contents
Aug. 2, 2004

2004 Olympic Preview

A Sprint to the Finish On a mad dash from Athens to ancient Olympia, the author lives out the chaos of Greece's final, frantic preparations

I jam my foot on the gas, wrench the wheel, just miss two men
stepping off a curb. The light is red, but who has time for law
and order? Cars pour into the intersection around me. Someone
beeps; pedestrians glare. My face is a mask of blank arrogance.
Isn't the road mine? Am I not a Greek cabdriver? I roll on
through as if it's my birthright. I must get to Omonia
Square--the traffic-hell plaza squatting at the heart of
Athens--to have any hope of reaching Olympia today, and I'll take
down anyone in my way. For effect I greet each obstacle with an
angry spew of Greek words, though my vocabulary is limited to the
polite ordering of a meat sandwich. "Paracalo!" I shout.
"Enta'ksi ... souvlaki!" Nothing can stop me. Unless, of course,
it's time to go out on strike. That's out of my hands.

This is an article from the Aug. 2, 2004 issue Original Layout

I didn't start out this way. No, when I first crept onto Syngrou
Avenue, I was your typical tourist adrift in a boxy Hyundai,
timid and apologetic. Cars passed me like bullet trains. I
gripped a map in one hand and instantly got lost. But then I
noticed something odd: People kept waving me over. Not me,
exactly, but the canary-yellow car I was driving, the taxi they
thought it was. At first I took offense. The 2004 Olympics
sparked the construction of new subway lines, highways and tram
systems, but an ingrained car culture still strangles Athens, and
no group has proven more intractable than the taxi drivers.
Resistant to regulation and happy to walk off the job, the city's
15,000 hacks are famous for gouging; the second time I took a cab
in Athens, the driver asked for the equivalent of $123 for a
$6.50 fare. Called on it, he shrugged as if to say, I'll just get
the next sucker.

Still, exactly one month before the opening of the most troubled,
most criticized Olympics in history, as city workers feverishly
planted trees and shrouded ugly buildings in hopes of presenting
a more elegant face to the world, it became clear that meekness
would get me nowhere. The day before, a midday blackout
short-circuited traffic lights and paralyzed the city. I had to
get out fast. Just around Hadrian's Arch my panic was shoved
aside by the challenge of Athens's frenetic pace. You want a cab?
"Enta'ksi," I growled--which means "O.K." but sounds like
taxi--and nearly laid out three motorbikes while whipping into
the left lane. Later I learned that my transformation was quite
normal. "At first, like in the U.S., you try to follow the
rules," says Marianna Koliopoulos, who emigrated to the U.S. with
her husband in 1972 but returns each summer. "But after a while
you drive like a Greek. You don't look at the road, you don't
really stop at stop signs. It's a little crazy."

Actually, I'm enjoying myself. I nearly collide with a stalled
van--sending my notepads, pencils, fruit and water hurtling
against the dash--then swerve in front of someone not nearly as
quick or clever as I. I consider sparking up a cigarette,
whipping out my cellphone, picking up a fare and charging double
the rate. Once you embrace it, there's no other sport like
driving in Athens. Construction has eaten the city alive, turning
mere congestion into what Greek track and field coach Odysseus
Papatoulis calls "this madness" of diverted traffic, jackhammered
streets and, now, a cleanup effort that will continue until well
after the opening ceremonies. One and a half million visitors are
expected to descend on the city during the Games, and two million
Athenians are expected to flee. Chaos creates a unique rush. As I
bull through Omonia's whirlpool of traffic, I heave right, hurled
by centrifugal force onto the route to the national highway.
"Para-calo!" I bellow.

I'm heading to Olympia for good reason. On Aug. 18, in the most
inspired bid to tap into Olympic history, the shot put will be
held there. It's a turn-back-the-clock event for the ages: 1,612
years after their last appearance in Olympia, the Games will
return to their birthplace, and no other sporting event will feel
more elemental. Tickets will be free, and only water will be sold
by concessionaires. The scoreboard will be hand-operated. Winners
will receive wreaths made from local olive branches. (They'll get
their medals two days later in Athens.)

Olympia will be held up as a profound reminder of the Olympic
ideal, the amateurism and simplicity that supposedly animate the
Games. Olympia is also a perfect distraction for people like me
who are looking for relief from talk of the Games' $7.2 billion
price tag, widespread security concerns and general Greek
paranoia. Eighty-five percent of the nation supports the return
of the Olympics, never mind the cost, but it's not uncommon to
hear someone suggest that Greece's stunning victory in the recent
Euro 2004 soccer championship was fixed to juice Olympic ticket
sales, or to hear Greek officials wax romantic and fearful in the
same breath. "I feel great, but I take care," says Rita
Papadopoulos, manager of the Olympia venue. "All the people are
afraid to go to the metro station. I tell my children, 'Don't go
there. I'm afraid. Be careful.'"

Indeed, there are so many nightmare scenarios for these Olympics
that the most likely disaster seems quaint: Only 1.8 million of
the 5.3 million tickets available have been sold. Considering
Greece's small population and depressed tourism, it seems
inevitable that at second-tier events there will be gaping holes
in the crowds. Greeks insist that their infamous last-minute
mentality will kick in and the stands will fill, but then,
spontaneity is nearly impossible in Athens now. More than 200,000
people poured out to greet Greece's triumphant soccer team when
it returned on July 5, but the celebration was nearly derailed
when the team bus got stuck in traffic for three hours.

"We have received a lot of unfair criticism," Athens mayor Dora
Bakoyannis told the crowd. "But now, just like at the European
Cup, we can prove to the world that when united and determined,
the Greeks can achieve anything." She didn't mention that, just
as it took a German coach to impose order and unity on the soccer
team, it took constant flogging by the International Olympic
Committee to get Greece to the finish line. The 35 sports venues
should be ready, but just barely. The long-delayed tram system is
only now beginning to roll. The new highway to Corinth is broad
and smooth, but once you're past the city the road narrows to two
lanes. To pass, you swallow hard, straddle the center line and
force cars going in both directions to move out of your way. I
lock in at 80 mph and follow the parade of maniacs gunning for
Patras, Pyrgos and Olympia.

I'm ripe for metaphor, of course, and the 280-mile journey seems
all too symbolic. Getting the Olympics back to Olympia has been
full of wild twists and white-knuckle moments, but it's easy to
envision Aug. 18 as a day in paradise, a momentary cure for
Olympic ills. Still, as I get closer, the conceit begins to seem
phony. The news is full of doping revelations and disgraced U.S.
track stars; what spectator, really, will take at face value
anything he sees at these Games?

I park outside the village of Olympia, walk down a deserted road
and over an elegant little bridge. The only sound comes from the
wind and the clamor of cicadas. People walk gingerly past columns
and tumbled stone and eventually stroll under a pocked stone arch
and into the stadium. It is, at first sight, stunningly
unimpressive: a 190-meter-long patch of dirt with a line of
stones embedded at each end, all surrounded by banks of scrubby
grass and high pines. On one side of the track stand the ruins of
a stone altar; on the other, the remnants of a grandstand. Yet no
visitor seems disappointed. One by one they all plant a foot on
the starting line, and sometimes a voice yells Go! A father
chases his teenage son a few yards, then tumbles laughing into
the dust.

Eighteen years ago, a girl named Kalliopi Ouzouni came here on a
school trip. There was the usual footrace; she finished third. "I
felt wonderful," she says, "but I never imagined I would be a
member of the Olympic team." Now the 31-year-old Ouzouni will be
one of two Greek women competing in the shot put. "When I
understood that the competition could happen in this special
place," she says, "it gave me more energy. It made me work

Far from the mess and carping of Athens, Olympia does feel
special. More than a third of the local population of 1,800
signed up to help out at the shot put event, and there's no
missing the town's unabashed pride.

But what happens if some shot-putter comes up dirty? What if the
real overwhelms the ideal? Athens, Olympia and Greece will
survive that, too, I realize when I wander out of the stadium and
see the line of 16 pedestals. The Greeks have known longer than
anyone else that nothing is pure, nothing is new. Here on these
pedestals, 16 statues of Zeus once stood, paid for by the fines
imposed on cheating athletes, whose names were inscribed as a
warning to all who pass.

That's when I know. The 2004 Olympics could be nowhere else but
in Greece. No other place better captures the mood of the moment;
no other place better represents our low expectations, our fear
of the unknown, our hope that, somehow, everything will turn out
right. There has never been a civic dash quite like Athens's
frantic race to the finish. We're all driving to Olympia
now--builders and athletes, cheaters and cheated, hacks and
riders alike--all swearing and braking for nothing. Climb in,
cross your fingers. I promise: You'll never feel more alive.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY SIMON BRUTY Four billion sets of eyes will be watching as the Summer Games return to their storied birthplace and U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps tries to eclipse Mark SpitzB/W PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY YANNIS KONTOS/POLARIS Panathinaiko Stadium, near the Acropolis in the center of Athens, is where track and field events were held at the 1896 Games. It's also where the Olympic marathon finished then and will finish again, on Aug. 29.COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY MCKIBILLO.COMTHREE COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY YANNIS KONTOS/POLARIS Past Olympia's arch is its bare track and the colonnade financed by cheating athletes of antiquity.FIVE COLOR ILLUSTRATIONS: ILLUSTRATIONS BY MCKIBILLO.COM