Games within games for sons of Spiros

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Spiros Louys was a refreshing sight in the hot streets of Athens 100 years ago. He would sell you a cup of water from the heavy containers yoked over his shoulders and tempt you with the nuts, fruit and sundry other tit-bits. He was a Greek equivalent of Molly Malone but with a wider range and, unlike her, he passed into folk-lore not because of his street- vending prowess but because he decided to venture his luck at a new games in town.

It was 1896; the year that a group of sporting visionaries led by Frenchman Baron Pierre de Coubertin decided to revive the ancient Olympics in the appropriate confines of the Greek capital. They built a stadium of gleaming white marble in sight of the Acropolis and invited the world to join in.

The star performer, however, had only to pop in off the street to take part in the main race, the marathon. Following the route taken by a Greek soldier, Pheidippides, in 490 BC when he ran the 26 miles or so to Athens with news of victory over the Persians in the battle of Marathon, Spiros found that the same strength of legs and heart that had helped him to be first to reach the likeliest customers carried him swiftest over the course.

When he entered the stadium as clear winner, all Athens erupted with joy that a Greek should win what for them was the most meaningful event of all. Thus did he become the first hero of the modern Olympics and everyone lived happily ever after; well, not quite everyone.

Spiros Louys went on to acquire his own taverna, which his descendents still control, and become a much honoured figure.

The Olympic Games grew to become the greatest show on earth.

And Athens? It has languished for a century as the neglected birthplace of the most potent force in sport; 101 years later, the city that re-launched the Olympics is still waiting for them to come home.

This week, it has the consolation of staging the World Athletics Championships for the first time but Athenians are praying that this is merely the overture to the Olympic Games of the year 2004 upon which they have set their hearts. The reason they are fretting about an event seven years hence is that the selection of the host city for the 2004 Olympics takes place in 41 days. The claims of Athens, along with rival cities Rome, Stockholm, Cape Town and Buenos Aries, will be finally considered by the International Olympic Commitee in Switzerland on 5 September .

By now, each of the candidate cities will be in a state of advanced anxiety about their bids but none of them face a test of their facilities and capabilities as exhaustive as that which confronts Athens. There are fears that the event could be the Trojan horse that defeats them.

Television will transmit the championships to 200 countries starting with Friday's opening ceremony which is being held, pointedly, in the same marble stadium that housed the 1896 Olympics and which features music written for the occasion by Greek composer Vangelis Pappathanassiou who won an Oscar for his Chariots of Fire score. The scene then switches to the new Olympic complex where the events will be held in the 80,000-seater stadium - which, you will not be surprised to learn, bears the name Spiros Louys - where the slightest hitch will be magnified by the effect it might have on their Olympic credentials. This is not entirely just. The people running the Athens 2004 campaign are not those organising the World Athletics Championships, which has not had the financial backing they plan for the Olympics.

I can cast considerable doubt on scare stories that they are well behind with their preparations and that the stadium resembles a "construction site". I was there last week and had a look at their new track, which has been laid by the same company that provided the Olympic running surface at Atlanta last year. There was nothing but the normal activity you would expect two weeks before a major event and an enormous amount of cable snaking around the place, which is not surprising because Greek television will be using 72 cameras to catch the action.

My invitation to visit Athens to judge for myself on the solidity of their campaign was part of the defensive measures any competing country needs to take to counter the negative reports that inevitably circulate, and it has to be admitted that Athens faces more than the usual hosting pressures over the next two weeks. Their dream is on trial.

The short answer to the question why they have had to endure such a long wait to be honoured with a sporting festival they created over 3,000 years ago is that Zeus has surrendered all Olympian power to the 109 voting delegates of the IOC.

The Greeks' most savage disappointment came seven years ago when they were prominent in the running to host the 1996 event and felt they had heavy moral ammunition as it was the centenary of the modern Games. But although Athens led in the first two rounds of voting there was a strong financial pull in favour of Atlanta, to whom the support of Coca-Cola was not a disadvantage, and the Americans won the final small majority.

It turned out to be far from the IOC's finest choice for reasons too calamitously recent to need elaboration and it is to the credit of Athens that they emerged from the experience bitter but not twisted. They decided not to rely on sentiment this time but to do some hard-nosed courting.

For a start, they have successfully attacked their reputation as a polluted, traffic-jammed city. New roads, improvements to the underground railway and a new international airport will, by the year 2000, reduce cars using the city centre by 250,000 per day and pollution by 35 per cent. In addition, they have one of the lowest crime rates in Europe.

As for readiness to take on the mighty responsibilities the Games bring, they have total financial backing in place and already have 72 per cent of the necessary facilities built and operational, including an indoor and outdoor swimming complex rated the best in the world. Athens is more ready to stage an Olympics than Sydney, who are hosts in 2000. More importantly, they have the genuine desire of the people behind them. Recent polls show that 96 per cent of the population of Athens want the Games to return home.

Of their rivals, Rome are judged to be the strongest. Cape Town and Buenos Aries may suffer because, if there is a rota, it will the turn of the northern hemisphere and Europe is next in the queue. The idea of Stockholm being hosts is not popular even in Stockholm. Even in Rome there is a determined anti lobby. Rome, however, has some powerful friends.

What Athens has is a determined campaign team led, unusually, by a woman. Gianna Angelopoulous is a charming, strong-willed, 41-year-old mother of three with an impressive legal background - where have we heard those qualities before? - who talks passionately about the renewal of the Olympic movement.

The case she will be putting with increasing vigour over the next month will appeal to all who have reservations about the way the Olympics have developed and may even convince the IOC that it's time for the event to return to its roots and have its ideals replenished.