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COLUMNISTS

Wed, August 11, 2004

Feel-good Games


Denyse Julien expected chaos.

For more than a year, that's all she has heard about, all she has read about. The pending disaster that will be the Athens Olympics.

"I figured Atlanta, only worse," said the 44-year-old badminton player from Calgary, a three-time Olympian.

"But this doesn't seem like Atlanta at all. You got to Atlanta (1996 Olympics) and you knew it was wrong. You just had that feeling. It doesn't feel like that here."

Insulated behind the barbed-wire fences of the athletes village here in Athens, there is a stunning sense of optimism almost everywhere. Stunning considering the buildup to these Games.

CONTRADICTION

But before they even begin, these already seem a Games of contradiction -- the doom and gloom that so enveloped Athens from the day the Games were awarded, seem somehow lost on the new arrivals here. Somehow the heat doesn't appear quite so oppressive, the air pollution so disabling, the traffic so stifling. Maybe, just maybe, this will not be completely chaotic. The athletes, forever believing, seem to see it that way.

"To be honest, I was expecting the worst," said Marina Radu, a water polo player from Montreal. "I've been quite surprised by everything. The village is great. We were told security would be overbearing, we haven't seen that yet. We figured transportation wouldn't work -- every time we've had to go anywhere it has been perfect. And the food, the food is amazing."

The atmosphere, well, may look all too familiar to North Americans. The village looks their own piece of suburbia, with row upon row of low-rise apartments: A condo complex gated and fenced, with just one man seated on a deck chair outside with rifle in hand. Just in case.

As for political statements, countries have been politely warned to keep them to a minimum. Some, such as representatives of the United States of all places, are doing their best to not be noticed. One American athlete walking through the international zone of the village asked if he could buy my red Maple Leaf hat.

"Why?" I inquired.

"Because we don't want anyone to know we're American."

Intentionally, the Canadians have limited their use of the flag in the village. "We've toned it down," said Natalie Lambert, the assistant Canadian chef de mission. "People complained in Nagano that it was a little much. We're a proud people, but we're not rubbing it in anyone's faces."

Other countries haven't followed suit. Cuba, for example, has adorned its apartment buildings with a Fidel Castro banner that is only slightly smaller than the island itself.

The Australians, more interested in fun than political statements, have decorated their social area with green indoor-outdoor carpet and lawn furniture, including umbrellas. They are handing out T-shirts that read G'day on the back to anyone who asks.

INTERNATIONAL ZONE

The common area for shopping -- the international zone -- has strip mall written all over it. There is a bank, a travel agency, a photo shop, a post office, a florist, a hair salon, a phone centre, a ticket agency, a music store, an Internet cafe and several choices of restaurants. All the conveniences of home, depending on where you are from.

"And yet, there is still a feeling you're in a special place," said Julien, who has been competing internationally for Canada for more than 20 years. "I know that sounds like a cliche, but you look around and see all this history. It can't help but affect you."

The one concern everyone still speaks of is security. That won't change. As Canadian athletes arrive daily in Athens, they are briefed by the Team Canada RCMP representative as to what to expect and how to react in case of turmoil. More than $1 billion US has been spent on security by the Athens organizing committee.

"But it's not as obvious like it was in Salt Lake City," Lambert said. "They're not in your face and so obnoxious about it ... There was a lot of reticence coming in. But I can tell you, it's not making anyone uncomfortable."

Reiterated Julien, who has competed all over the world: "It doesn't feel threatening here and I thought it would. We were told it might be bad. So far, I don't see any bad. So far, everything feels good."


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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