An Olympian feat: how Athens defied critics and got ready in time for The Games

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Athens' Olympic preparations have been laughingly billed as the modern Greek ruins, but with only one week to go, Games organisers are riding a wave of optimism that they will be ready to welcome the world in style on 13 August.

Athens' Olympic preparations have been laughingly billed as the modern Greek ruins, but with only one week to go, Games organisers are riding a wave of optimism that they will be ready to welcome the world in style on 13 August.

The Greek capital has made itself into the comeback kid of Olympic host cities. All 37 venues are finished, new transport links have done much to unlock traffic problems and thous- ands of athletes are filling up an Olympic village hailed almost unanimously as the best ever.

Persistent doubts over Greece's ability to deliver world-class sporting venues and mounting concerns over the safety of tens of thousands of athletes, officials and visitors have subsided.

The Australian mission, which has been among Athens' most dogged critics, revealed the extent of the turnaround when their team's boss John Coates rated Greek venues as better than those on his home soil four years ago:

"The venues have been scaled bigger and better than they were at Sydney," he said this week. The US women's football team later put to rest transatlantic fears over haphazard security planning as they cheerfully checked in to a city previously billed as dangerous and anti-American.

"I haven't worried about security once," said Abby Wambach, the US striker. "The Olympic village is its own little compound. They took care of every little detail, it's like they've done it all before."

Gianna Angelopoulos, who has become the figurehead of Athens' stubborn insistence that it would deliver the goods since taking over the organising committee in 2000, put the turnaround down to pressure.

"We finally made up for lost time. Greece has made a gigantic effort and this miracle, which came about from hard work, anxiety and stress - constructive anxiety and stress - during the past four years, has brought us to this point."

What a difference a year makes. This time last year Jacques Rogge, the head of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), was still jousting with Greek organisers over chronic delays and issuing coded pleas to them to pick up their pace or face disaster.

Years of similar appeals had seemed to fall on deaf ears and Athens had come close to losing the Games altogether in the summer of 2000 as the IOC's patience came dangerously close to running out. Then the IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch delivered his "yellow card" warning after years of in-fighting and crippling bureaucracy had left Olympic Athens stuck on the drawing board.

The veteran lawyer Stratos Stratigis, who was drafted in to head up the organising committee after Athens won its 1997 bid to get the Games, admitted that three years just fell by the wayside.

"We did the groundwork and had a good organisational structure in place but their was a lot of in-fighting between ministries and we didn't have the political backing," he said .

In an attempt to avoid having the Olympics transferred elsewhere, Mr Samaranch demanded that the Greeks bring back the mega-rich Ms Angelopoulos, who had spearheaded Athens' successful bid with her industrialist husband Theo three years earlier.

The task facing the reshuffled organisers was massive. Hundreds of kilometres of ring roads, metro extensions, a tram system and a suburban rail network needed to be built. The multi-sport venue at Hellinikon was still a disused airport and massive renovations at the main Olympic complex were still at the planning stage.

Opponents of the Games ranged from angry archaeologists and prostitutes striking against brothel closures to campaigners concerned at reports of stray-dog poisoning. Mr Rogge, the Belgian doctor who replaced Mr Samaranch at the helm of the IOC in 2002, memorably compared Greek preparations to the whirling Syrtaki dance in the hit film Zorba the Greek: "It starts very slowly, it accelerates and by the end you can't keep up with the pace," he said.

But the attempt to complete seven years' work in half the time came to focus on the single most spectacular project on the drawing board for 2004. The futuristic web-like steel and glass roof designed by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava was written off by some as overambitious, with even the IOC saying that the project was unnecessary.

When, after months of delays and rumours of engineer- ing problems, the two giant steel arches were wheeled into place in June, Athens reached its turning point. With its architectural landmark in place, the barrage of last-minute deadlines began to deliver finished projects instead of excuses.

But as any Athenian knows only too well, this was a miracle performed at a cost. The initial Games budget of £3bn has soared to a predicted final cost in excess of £7bn. The ballooning budget deficit and continual hikes in public borrowing prompted Greece's finance minister to publicly question whether it had all been worth it.

The expected tourism boom is nowhere in sight, with visitor figures down by 15 per cent. Greeks can only cross their fingers and hope their two weeks of costly exposure to the global spotlight will not come to be seen as a gesture that their ancestors invented a word for: hubris.

My Week, page 40;

Olympic countdown, pages 58-59

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