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COLUMNISTS

Sun, August 8, 2004

Greece is the word!


ATHENS -- When you arrive at Gate 13A for your 13th Olympic Games after 13 hours' flying time and begin to contemplate covering an opening ceremonies on Friday the 13th, there's a tad of trepidation. Especially these XXVIII Olympics.

Almost revoked and removed to another location by the IOC because of organizational chaos and construction delays beyond belief, these are an Olympics with a terrorist threat so high the bill for security has topped $2 billion.

When you leave, you're braced for the worst. When you arrive ...

"Welcome Home,'' read the signs on banners, on the walls and even on the floors at the airport.

This is where the Olympics began. This is the home of higher, faster, stronger. And when you arrive, even if you are braced for another Atlanta or worse, you can't help but think maybe IOC president Jacques Rogge has a chance to be right when he came out here the other day and predicted that these Olympics will be magical.

POSITIVE FIRST IMPRESSIONS

First impressions are remarkably positive.

Accreditation and transportation to a terrific media village took just over an hour - which may be an Olympic record. Usually you can predict the success or failure of a Games organization in the first few hours.

And about those construction delays. There's no roof on the swimming pool as planned, but this isn't Santo Domingo and the Pan-Am Games, where the facilities were completed while the Games were in progress. They're ready.

There are still about 20,000 banners to be hung around the city and apparently about as many stray dogs to be rounded up and moved out of town, but against all odds, they're ready and already getting good reviews.

To be here for these Olympics, if you'd been here for the IAAF World Championships in Athletics in 1997, is in itself a revelation. That event was an unmitigated disaster.

The stadium was almost empty for the first few days of the event and improved largely as a result of rent-a-crowd members of the army, etc. ...

Other than the obvious with the potential for terrorist activity, attendance may be the area where these Olympics will fail. To be a success, they're going to have to capture the imagination of Athenians once they're underway.

Athens may be the home of the Olympics, but the truth is that it's been about 100 years since the place has been what you'd call a good sports town.

As the countdown gets down to the final five days, organizers and the Greek government were admitting that more than half of the 5.3 million tickets for these Olympics have not been sold.

With a record 202 countries and 10,500 athletes headed here, there's an good chance many of them will play before sparse gatherings of spectators.

Because of the fear of terrorism and the coverage of the early organizational disaster, the tourists aren't coming.

The 1997 IAAF World Championships in Athletics was the last major international event before the IOC vote to decide who played host to the 2004 Olympics, and the Greeks threw a party for the Olympic family, including the media (my personal favourite being an evening cruise to a Greek island).

Throughout it all, everybody who'd experienced Athens being unable to stage a successful track meet, much less a 29-venue event, figured they'd proved unworthy of any consideration for getting the Games.

But the IOC loved the concept of coming back to where it all began. They loved the opening ceremonies, which were held in Panathinkaikon Stadium, the exact same site as the original built in 300-329 B.C. and rebuilt in white marble for the Panathenaic Games in A.D. 114 and restored for the first modern-day Olympics in 1896.

MOVING EXPERIENCES

Athens produced the most spine-tingling, most emotional, most marvellous moments at a sports ceremony I've ever experienced.

And on the last day they ran the Marathon from Marathon where, in 490 B.C., Pheidippides ran the route.

The opening ceremonies, the marathon and the memories of nights in rooftop restaurants in the Plaka looking up at the Acropolis (plus the plan to hold the shot put at Olympia) left the IOC delegates to decide, despite all evidence, to come back to where it all began.

With that background and six years of news reports of an Olympic Games almost totally in the toilet, you still can't help but arrive here at Gate 13A for your 13th Olympics after 13 hours' flying time and surprise yourself by coming to the conclusion that the Olympics which begin on Friday the 13th have half a chance of being a success.


Does Canada's low-medal haul in Athens bother you?
Yes, it depresses me
No, it's just sports
I'm disappointed, but not worried
We'll get 'em in Turin
Don't care

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