Olympic torchlight makes Athens glow

Eight years is about the average delay for public works projects in Greece, so it is appropriate that Athens - big loser in the bid for the centennial Olympics last year - should be awarded the honour of staging the 2004 Games. Better late than never.

In an atmosphere of deep superstition and barely nourished hope, the Greek capital received news of its successful candidature on Friday night. The city, which last hosted the Olympics in 1896 ,when the games were revived, had been bracing itself for another disappointment, and the Prime Minister, Costas Simitis, said that the country's future depended on his government, not on the Olympics.

Athens' main rivals for the 2004 Games, Rome and Cape Town, reacted in contrasting ways yesterday.

Rome greeted the news with stoicism mixed with thinly veiled scorn for its Mediterranean sister. "The Greek choice is in reality a withering condemnation of Italy and the presumptuousness of its leaders," said Giulio Maceratini, Senate leader for the opposition National Alliance Party. In other words, Athens could not have possibly got it right - we must have got it horribly wrong. Rome's bid was in reality a hotchpotch of ill-thought-out construction projects, poor urban planning and outright deception dressed up in slick Italian packaging.

The tenor Luciano Pavarotti, who took part in Rome's final presentation at Lausanne, inadvertently highlighted the problem by saying he wished he had sung, not just talked, to the International Olympic Committee delegates. The singing would just have been more packaging.

In South Africa, the disappointment of losing, despite Nelson Mandela's passionate advocacy, was greeted with an "it was not all wasted" reaction; and there was a widespread feeling that Cape Town should bid again for 2008.

Some commentators said the decision was perhaps an indication that the IOC did not consider the developing world the place to celebrate Olympism. But the acting Western Cape premier, Gerald Morkel, led the upbeat responses. He said the attempt had put Cape Town on the map of desirable international cities to visit. The number of tourists to Cape Town has doubled in the last year and the Olympic bid is expected to further expand the tourism sector.

President Mandela was considered Cape Town's ace card. He urged the IOC members to "give Africa the impetus it needs and deserves" but failed to swing the decision in Cape Town's favour. On Friday night, on his way back to South Africa, he congratulated Athens as a worthy winner and said that the question of whether Cape Town would apply again would be discussed.

Athens' bid had always been impressively well organised - even charismatic. Much of the credit must go to Gianna Angelopoulos, spearhead of the Greek application, with her intense lobbying. The wife of a Greek iron and steel millionaire, she will almost certainly use her success to run for mayor of Athens next year and launch a full-scale political career.

But Athens itself must take some of the credit. The Greek capital has shaken off much of its polluted grottiness and transformed itself into a vibrant, exciting centre where bars, restaurants, designer stores and art galleries open every week.

By 2004, Athens will have a new international airport, a highway cutting through the notoriously clogged centre and a modest underground rail network - all features that it lacked in its 1996 Olympic bid.

Most of the games will be organised in a triangle linking the airport, the Olympic village and the existing Olympic stadium - all to the north of the centre. Volleyball and a handful of other events will take place on the south side, in an area linked to the new highway system.

Decent accommodation is desperately scarce, however, and the phone system is one of the most primitive in the European Union. And Athens is still an overwhelmingly ugly place. But the successful bid is a sign that the country is at last moving forward from the corruption and demagogy of the Papandreou years in the 1980s. Greece may be too far behind to join the single European currency when it is launched, but the Olympics will help the Greeks, with their tendency to geopolitical paranoia, to believe that they have not been entirely abandoned by the world community.