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Athens must make 'another step forward'

Within hours of hailing the Sydney Games as the best ever, IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch put Athens on notice to speed up preparations for the 2004 Summer Olympics.

Within hours of hailing the Sydney Games as the best ever, IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch put Athens on notice to speed up preparations for the 2004 Summer Olympics.

Samaranch said the Greek government needs to do more to overcome three years of chronic delays in construction of venues and other projects.

"I think with the new organizing committee things are going much better," he said in an interview Monday with The Associated Press. "But we need another step forward. The cooperation of the government must be much more important. The government must be more involved in the games."

Samaranch warned earlier this year that the Athens Games were in danger because of the delays. Since then, Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, who led the Athens bid, was brought back to run the organizing committee, and Premier Costas Simitis has assumed government control over the games.

But Samaranch said Athens should go a step further and follow the model of Sydney, where the head of the organizing committee was also a government minister.

Angelopoulos-Daskalaki has complained the government has not done enough to cut through red tape and must work faster. Greece's public sector is notorious for its lack of organization and slow pace in completing construction works.

"A huge work like the organization and carrying out of the Olympic Games cannot be done at the pace of the Greek public sector," Angelopoulos-Daskalaki told the Greek daily newspaper Ethnos.

Government spokesman Dimitris Reppas on Monday denied rumors the flamboyant head of the Athens Organizing Committee had threatened to resign because she was frustrated with bureaucracy.

The morning after the flame was extinguished in Sydney, Samaranch took a few moments to reflect on the emotions he felt closing his 10th and last games as head of the International Olympic Committee.

"I wasn't sad, but I was emotional," he said. "I had 20 years behind me as president of the IOC. I was thinking I was very lucky. I was very lucky the last games were the best games ever in Olympic history."

The 80-year-old Spaniard still has 9 1/2 months to go before he hands over to his successor at the IOC session in Moscow in July.

"Until the last day, until the last minute, I will work as the full president, executive president," he said.

Samaranch said he expects there will be a maximum of three candidates.

The two top contenders are considered to be Jacques Rogge, the IOC executive from Belgium who oversaw the Sydney Games; and Canada's Dick Pound, who negotiates Olympic television rights and heads the World Anti-Doping Agency.

Other possible candidates include Australian IOC vice president Kevan Gosper and South Korean executive board member Kim Un-yong.

Samaranch had disappointed Atlanta in 1996 when he described the Centennial Games only as "most exceptional." But he gave Sydney and Australia the ultimate accolade at Sunday night's closing ceremony.

"These are my last games as IOC president," he said. "They could not have been better. Therefore, I am proud and happy to proclaim that you have presented to the world the best Olympic Games ever."

Samaranch said Sydney met the two main conditions he always sets for the success of the games: superior organization and great performances by the home team. Australia won a national record 58 medals.

"It's incredible, the fourth country in the medal table, a country of 19 million people," he said. "I think it's something that helped a lot the success of the games."

At the opening ceremony two weeks ago, Samaranch received a call advising him that his wife of 45 years, Maria Teresa, was gravely ill in Barcelona, Spain. He flew home the next morning, but she died before he arrived.

Samaranch returned to Sydney a few days later for the remainder of the games, all the while keeping his emotions to himself.

"It's very personal for me," he said Monday. "If I have to cry, I cry."

These games were crucial for Samaranch and the IOC to rub off the lingering stains caused by the bribery scandal centering on Salt Lake City's bid for the 2002 Winter Games. Ten IOC members were ousted for receiving cash, gifts and other favors.

"Thanks to these games, I think in this moment the IOC and the Olympic Games have more prestige than before the crisis," Samaranch said.

He cited the induction of eight athletes as IOC members, including Ukrainian pole vaulter Sergei Bubka's election to the ruling executive board, as a defining moment in the IOC's reform process.

"It means the reforms of the IOC are not only words, they are facts," Samaranch said.