Athens 2004 plans fall further behind schedule

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The Independent Online

Work at some long-delayed venues for the 2004 Olympics has been boosted to a dawn-to-dusk schedule in Athens, with no weekend breaks.

Work at some long-delayed venues for the 2004 Olympics has been boosted to a dawn-to-dusk schedule in Athens, with no weekend breaks.

It is not just a matter of getting the job done by the opening ceremony or trying to impress the International Olympic Committee, which begins a three-day inspection of preparations on Wednesday.

Fresh pressure is coming from sports federations demanding that organisers live up to promises to have many venues ready months before the Games in order to double-check specifications and hold test events. Vassilis Keramidas, the civil engineer at the planned wrestling and judo hall that straddles the fault line of a deadly 1999 earthquake, said: "We are working as fast as possible."

Additional seismic reinforcement is slowing down construction and some project officials doubt whether it will be ready for a wrestling test event scheduled for July 2003.

Such predictions will only add to worries at the IOC. The Greek government – in charge of all major Olympic works – believes the planning effort will get more praise than blame from the reviewers this week. But that is not a sure bet as sports federations grow more nervous about pre-Olympic test events.

"I cannot hide the fact that the sports world has a number of concerns," said Denis Oswald, chief IOC overseer of the preparations. "They have nothing to do with Greece's ability to stage the Olympic Games, rather the difficulty of doing so in the limited amount of time left before August 2004."

Oswald has warned that Athens will be "racing against time right up to August 2004" and cannot afford any "unpleasant surprises" such as earthquakes, labour strikes or discovery of antiquities.

But that is exactly what has happened at the planned Olympic equestrian centre in Marcopoulo, about nine miles south-east of central Athens. Crews have uncovered ancient finds, including what archaeologists believe is a 2,500-year-old shrine to the love goddess Aphrodite.

The discovery of what also served as a brothel is not expected to seriously slow the construction. But any more finds on the site could throw the project behind schedule.

At the planned table tennis and rhythmic gymnastics centre in the suburb of Galatsi, where test events are planned for March 2004, construction has been slowed by unforeseen rock beds and the target date is in doubt.

However, the biggest problems are likely to arise at the former international airport on the coast south of Athens.

Planners shifted the canoe and kayak course to the former airfield last year after environmentalists and others protested against the original site north of Athens. Work has yet to begin on the highly technical water courses, which normally go through months of fine-tuning before a major event.

The government, meanwhile, is tiptoeing around any subject that could anger trade unions and further disrupt construction. Proposals to reform Greece's nearly bankrupt pension system have effectively been put on hold until after the Olympics.

The IOC will be briefed on other potential trouble spots, including Athens' struggle to find 60,000 Olympic volunteers and plans to place spectators in private homes because of a hotel room shortage.

The IOC team also is likely to seek explanations over a legal challenge by the mayor of Athens to plans for a suburban light rail system, which is part of attempts to ease the city's chronic traffic chaos during the Games. The suit seeks to block the project because of fears it could even make traffic more congested in some areas.

But for Athens' Olympic planners, it is all a matter of perspective. Things have been so much worse that the latest woes seem less worrisome. The former head of the IOC, Juan Antonio Samaranch, sharply lambasted Athens in 2000 for delays that put the games in jeopardy. And as recently as September, Oswald was warning of "alarming delays" before finally lauding Athens for getting on track.

"There are, of course, always some pending issues and some problems that surface on a daily basis and that is natural," said Tilemahos Hitiris, a government spokesman. "In general terms... the Olympic works are materialising according to the timetables."