Greece is under pressure to get sporting venues ready for the 2004 Athens Olympics and at the same time spruce up an ancient capital that no longer wants to be known as just a cradle of civilization.
Two years before the Games return to Greece after108 years, Athens has become a vast construction site as authorities race against the clock to have it ready by the opening ceremony on August 13, 2004.
The International Olympic Committee has urged the Athens Games organizers, troubled by delays and bureaucratic hurdles, to speed up preparations as there is no time to lose.
A city of more than four million people, almost half of Greece’s population, Athens has long been dogged by huge traffic problems, air pollution and a lack of parks and recreational areas.
For the next two years, rather than improving because of hosting the world’s biggest sporting event, problems will grow more acute as the city expands roads, builds a suburban railway and tram network and extends its subway system.
While the jackhammers beat out paths to Games sites for hundreds of thousands of spectators, other builders are constructing Olympics sports venues.
ATHENS IN THE SPOTLIGHT
The organizers are as determined to showcase the Greek capital as an ideal tourist spot and ultra modern European capital as they are to put on a trouble-free Olympics.
Games chief Gianna Angelopoulos said Athens will be unrecognizable in 2004. "It will be a different city, modern and cutting-edge," she told reporters.
Organizers hope hi-tech communications, a complete public transport overhaul and a significant rise in visitors in the years following the Games will help change the face of the Greek capital.
As one of Europe’s few modern capitals without a major convention center, Athens also is poised to develop new facilities to attract year-round business tourism.
For decades, the majority of tourists zoomed briefly through Athens’ antiquities before rushing off to Greece’s famous islands. The average stay in the congested capital rarely exceeded two or three days.
Pumping in money from the "Greece 2004" fund of more than $970 million, officials hope to put their city in the international spotlight, much as Barcelona did in 1992.
Among Athens’ high-profile projects is the much-anticipated Acropolis museum, a rectangular glass building at the foot of the Parthenon temple, which itself is undergoing restoration.
Greeks hope the new museum will trigger the return of the temple’s marble friezes, removed by Lord Elgin in the late 18th century and currently kept at the British Museum in London despite decades of demands by Greece for them to be sent back.
A grand archeological walkway -- a rare pedestrian zone in the city center -- will link the new museum with the ancient cemetery of Kerameikos and the marble-clad Panathenian stadium where the modern Olympics were revived in 1896.
As the city rushes to polish off its smog-covered treasures, many hidden behind ugly post-war buildings and thousands of advertising billboards, several games venues have fallen behind schedule.
The capital’s sprawling former airport at Hellenikon, a stone’s throw from the city center, is to be turned into a major Olympics sports complex including a basketball stadium, hockey and baseball pitches.
Work is lagging as details of the events it will host and plans for its post-Olympics use have yet to be ironed out.
Initially planned to be Europe’s largest park after the Games, the prime city site is now being considered a key sports venue for the Olympics and after.
ORGANIZERS SCRAP PROJECTS
To meet deadlines and save money, some projects are being trimmed from their original grand design.
"We are going ahead as planned with some adjustments that are normal for any Games," said an official of the organizing committee. "Some venues are reviewed and changed."
Some roads from central Athens and from the city’s port of Piraeus to the Olympic Stadium have been shelved due to time constraints. Several venues, including the boxing arena, have either been scrapped, trimmed down or relocated.
Organizers and visiting Olympic committee inspectors said in June the cutbacks in venues and facilities are essential in order not to leave "white elephants" behind -- useless complexes for little-played sports.
The city has its first official venue test this week with the international Athens regatta held at the site of the still incomplete Agios Kosmas Olympic sailing center.
Piraeus, where cruise ships will berth to offer thousands of visitors a place to stay due to a shortage of hotel rooms -- most of them reserved for Olympic committee members, VIPs and foreign dignitaries -- is also undergoing a serious face-lift.
The country’s largest, but aging port, the major gateway to the Greek islands, is expected to attract thousands of travelers who will combine summer holidays in Greece with a trip to Athens to watch the Games.
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