Home for Elgin Marbles to miss Games deadline

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The Independent Online

The opening this week of the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City is an uncomfortable moment for Athens. Just over two years before the Greek capital hosts the much larger summer Games, its preparations are dogged by delays, a shortage of volunteer helpers, and claims that corner-cutting is threatening safety at the Olympic Village construction site.

The opening this week of the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City is an uncomfortable moment for Athens. Just over two years before the Greek capital hosts the much larger summer Games, its preparations are dogged by delays, a shortage of volunteer helpers, and claims that corner-cutting is threatening safety at the Olympic Village construction site.

Now the man in charge of building a £75m glass-walled home for the Elgin Marbles, a project timed for 2004 to exert maximum pressure on Britain to return them, had admitted it stands no chance of being ready. "We are too late for this project," said Dimitrios Pandermalis, a professor of archaeology. "We have simply started far too late."

He told The Independent on Sunday that, despite more than 15 years of planning and preparation, detailed plans for the museum to house the Parthenon sculptures will not be completed for another five months. Construction of the museum is the centrepiece of the Greek government's campaign for the return of the sculptures, removed 200 years ago by Lord Elgin and kept in the British Museum. One design was axed after excavations unearthed ancient finds, and new plans, accommodating the archaeological works, were commissioned.

The cornerstone would be laid this summer, and the aim was still to finish in 2004, said Professor Pandermalis. But he added: "We would need to work 24 hours a day, every day, between now and then, and everything would have to develop perfectly, in order for this to happen."

That is not the only setback afflicting Athens 2004. Organisers want 60,000 volunteer helpers, but only half this number has so far even expressed an interest – and 43 per cent of those live abroad. A free concert last week to seek more volunteers was briefly disrupted by anti-Games demonstrators chanting opposition to "concrete, steroids and bribes". It also caused a huge traffic jam, confirming a recent report which predicted that traffic in Athens could double by 2005.

Concern is increasing, too, that the hoped-for flood of Olympics visitors will have nowhere to stay. Eighty-three per cent of existing accommodation is already booked, but efforts to speed up construction have hit political difficulties, with the labour minister, Dimitris Reppas, promising that safety would not be compromised after accusations of "sweatshop conditions" at the Olympic Village site.

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