Hurricane Gianna blows the clouds away from Athens

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Writing off the Games years before they begin has almost become an Olympic sport in itself. It happened in Sydney and no doubt it was happening back in 700BC when they were born at Olympia and again in 1896 when they were revived in Athens. Greece is a nation which has suffered more than its share of Cassandras.

But the gloom has lifted and doom is no longer the prophecy. On Friday afternoon the smile on the face of Mrs Gianna Angelopoulos was as bright as her orange trouser suit. The First Lady of the Games finally put her team in the lead. A yellow card had become the green light. After two years of fretting and feuding, Athens 2004 is back on course. And for once it was not the Greeks who were bearing gifts. "The situation has changed. Things have improved,'' said the Swiss lawyer Denis Oswald, who heads the International Olympic Committee's team of enforcers, which includes Britain's Craig Reedie, in a surprise about turn. "We are confident that the Games will be delivered on time,'' said the man deputed by the IOC's president, Jacques Rogge, to ensure that they are.

A far cry from the days not so long ago when the former IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch warned that Athens could forfeit the Games if the organisers and the government did not act quickly. Angelopoulos, the raven-haired millionairess and ex-MP who won the Games for Athens and was then dumped because her popularity made her a dangerous political opponent, was hastily recalled when Samaranch spoke out.

Tables were thumped and heads banged together and Angelopoulos, who wields a far meaner handbag than Margaret Thatcher ever did, fought bitterly to head off what would have been the greatest humiliation in the nation's history. "I am a proud Greek and I was determined to see my country change because of the Games,'' she told me.

"She saved the day,'' murmured Israel's Alex Gillardy, a senior member of the IOC Co-ordination Commission, of the role played by the 47-year-old Angelopoulos. The lady herself demurs: "I have worked no magic. It has all been done professionally, by hard work, and there is still much more to do. These have been dark days, anxious days, but now we have reached the turning point. This has always been my goal.''

Of course, as Oswald said, there are still several outstanding worries, for not everything in the Greek garden is lovely. Traffic congestion and accommodation remain an ongoing problem but he has accepted assurances that these are not insoluble. And on the construction front the Greeks are now clearly digging for victory.

There are those who remain sceptical of course, as there always will be: not least several British cynics who seem to think that organising a modern Games is beyond the nation which invented them. But as the ruins of the Acropolis look in a far healthier state than Wembley perhaps such critical lips should remain sealed.

Reedie, the chairman of the British Olympic Association, was never one of the doubters, though he admits some initial concern. "But I have been impressed with the progress that has been made since the last inspection visit six months ago. Then I literally saw three holes in the ground where the Olympic village was supposed to be but now the construction is well under way and it could even be completed ahead of schedule. You always get a much better feeling when you see concrete being poured.''

And it is, copiously. Round the clock shifts of workers have been deployed to guarantee that the digging, the excavating and the building will be completed on time to ensure that Greece's modern Games will be as memorable as the ancient ones. It may have seemed that a one-woman show has brought this about but there is at least one man who shares her dedication, dreams and much of her charisma. As Vice-Minister of Communications, Telemachos Hytiris, 56, has the responsibility of processing the Games message to the Government and the world. Not only is he a politician but a poet of some renown who for years was a political exile in Florence when the colonels were in power, and is now married to one of the nation's most popular folk singers. He also plays cricket for Corfu, the island of his birth.

"These games are extremely important for Greece,'' he said. "It is an opportunity to upgrade the country, to establish ourselves as part of Euroland. It is an opportunity to give the Olympics a specifically Hellenic hue, and to return to the old values of the Games, concentrating on a festival of friendship rather than celebration of excesses.'' Fine words from one famed for what he's termed his "existentialist'' poetry. But there is realism, too. "There will be worries and criticisms right up to the last minute, as there were in Sydney.

"We understand the ongoing concern of Mr Oswald and the IOC. We have a positive report now but I am sure he fears that because of our Mediterranean temperament we will ease up. This will not happen. Out programme will be ready and the Games will be good.''

The powerhouse agrees with the poet. "There will be no complacency,'' Angelopoulos assures us. "I am relieved that the report is favourable but that relief has lasted only about half an hour. We must stay constantly on our toes. Things could still go wrong and we must have contingency plans for everything.

''They say it never rains in Athens in August, but who knows maybe it will.'' Not on her parade. It wouldn't dare.

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