Olympics: Security is top priority as Athens chief approaches the finish line

Gianna Angelopoulos says that safety has consistently led her Olympic agenda.
Click to follow

She says she feels like she is in the final few hundred yards of a marathon: physically exhausted, but driven towards the finish line by adrenaline and sheer determination. Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, aged 48, devotes practically every waking hour to work. Her three children are pretty much resigned to not seeing their mother for another six months, by which time she hopes to have beaten the odds and delivered a successful Olympic Games to Greece.

It is almost four years since Angelopoulos answered the call to save the Greek Games. She came in at absolute crisis point - the International Olympic Committee was so concerned about stalled progress that it was threatening to switch the event to Seoul or Sydney. Surprisingly, despite having already won the bid for Athens in 1997, Angelopoulos was initially overlooked in the original search for an organisational supremo. When the Greek Government finally came to realise it couldn't do without her toughness and drive, which have prompted the inevitable comparisons with Margaret Thatcher, she put aside any personal gripes and took up the challenge with zeal.

Organising an Olympics is said by experts to be the logistical equivalent of staging a full-scale war and Angelopoulos has not been helped in that she inherited a brief that had all the competence of Dad's Army.

Security issues, at the top of her agenda well before the bomb attacks on Madrid, have become even more pressing with terrorism experts saying the Games and, in particular, athletes from the United States will be a tempting target for extremist groups based in the nearby Middle East. Those concerns were amplified yesterday when the Greeks requested assistance from Nato come August.

Angelopoulos, who has a bodyguard herself because a member of her husband's family was assassinated by the Greek guerilla group 17 November, said: "[Security] is an international concern but for us it has been the No 1 priority for some time. Because of the Olympics, security has been upgraded to a very different level. We plan [security] exercises, then check the results and upgrade the security levels because we want people to feel safe and secure."

Greece is the first country to host a summer Games since the September 11 attacks, and the Greek Government has spent $750m (£416.5m) on security - three times the budget for Sydney in 2000. Much of Angelopoulos's time recently has been occupied with analysing the results of various test sports events around the city such as Operation Blue Odyssey, which was staged last month to simulate a major breach of security during the Games.

In a series of mock crises played out in and around the city, some 1,900 members of the emergency services and Armed Forces were deployed. The situations they had to face were a sarin gas attack at the city's central station; the kidnap of a tycoon from his yacht by Chechen rebels; and the bombing of a cruise liner in the port of Piraeus.

In addition to this, in common with the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, a no-fly zone will be imposed around the Olympic area for the duration of the Games. AWACS planes will patrol the skies and police frogmen will search the waters of Piraeus, the port close to Athens where around a dozen cruise liners will dock to provide accommodation. A total of 41,000 security personnel have had their leave cancelled for the summer.

Security experts from Britain, the United States and Israel have formed part of a seven-nation group based in Athens to help Greece with its own set of unique challenges. These are the first Games to take place since border controls were lifted for the European countries which have signed the Schengen agreement. Patrolling the porous coastline will be another major concern. The Ministry of Public Order insists there are no specific threats to the event and claims that since the conviction last year of the leaders of the 17 November guerrilla group, which killed 23 people, including the British diplomat Stephen Saunders, in 25 years, there are no threats from internal groups.

Sat on the edge of a black leather sofa in the spacious top-floor office of the Games headquarters where she commands around 3,000 staff, Angelopoulos seems undaunted by being one of the few women in such a man's world, taking it all in her stride.

With the current challenges it is easy to lose sight of achievements in remedying grandiose plans, stalled construction projects and widespread public apathy when she came to office, thus convincing the IOC that the Games could return to their historic birthplace.

She said: "Organising the Olympics makes you think in a very realistic way. We had to think what could be achieved given the time and budget and took some pretty progressive decisions. We suggested to the Government some cuts where we felt it would not affect the operation of the Games."

Her stewardship of the Games is the latest addition to an impressive curriculum vitae. A trained lawyer, she has already survived the snakes and ladders of Greek politics, with two stints as a right-wing member of parliament in Athens. Her leadership skills were then key to her landing a teaching post at the prestigious John Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. And her connections are further enhanced by marriage to Theodore Angelopoulos, a billionaire shipping and steel tycoon from one of the most powerful dynasties in Greece. Plus there is one final weapon in her armoury: with her Sophia Loren looks and trademark trouser suits, her allure is said to "blow the fuse" of middle-aged men, of whom there is no shortage on the IOC.

Angelopoulos will need to call on all her reserves in the view of the IOC president, Jacques Rogge, who during a visit to the Greek capital two weeks ago warned that any further delays could be fatal. She will be aided by the centre-right prime minister elect, Costas Karamanlis, who, following elections last week, appointed himself Culture Minister with responsibility for the Games and went straight into talks with Angelopoulos.

Much of the debate would have addressed widespread concern about transport during the Games. Angelopoulos must ensure the swift transportation of athletes, spectators and media in an ancient city centre. At the moment the streets are among the most congested in Europe and hours can be wasted in the back of an idling taxi, gazing at the unfinished tram routes and partly built roads, wondering whether they will be ready on time. Nevertheless, the new airport east of the city and a 30-kilometre stretch of motorway into the city centre are finished, contributing to what Angelopoulos describes as an "unprecedented, unbelievable" legacy for Greeks.

Angelopoulos stresses that the Games have been designed to take the burden off the city centre by situating a record number of new sports venues for the Games around the region. These include the equestrian centre near the airport, the rowing and canoeing centre in Schinias and the weightlifting hall near the port of Piraeus. "Wisdom has it that it should be easier to concentrate everything in one place but we haven't done that. For the Olympics it is probably easier to have it all in one place. But for Athens, the problems that concentrated facilities would create for transportation would be huge."

Another threat to the smooth running of the city that she could probably do without has emerged from local taxi drivers, who have threatened to hold the Government to ransom by staging a strike during the Games. But Angelopoulos is confident of keeping them onside. The introduction of a fares system standardised by the European Union has been delayed until next year and she has been in negotiations with trades union leaders. "They are people who maybe don't agree with the Games. They are people who maybe would like to know more about [them]. [But] during this unique demonstration of our country and ourselves, they will see how we are very honoured and very proud to host the Games."

Asked how she feels about getting this far, Angelopoulos avoids even the slightest hint of triumphalism. "We have to be alert and vigilant and not say 'The good Lord will save us'. Instead we say, 'We are the people who are in control and we are ready for every occasion - for every alternative scenario'. We have had an exhaustive working period up until now and we go on. We have changed things so that they run. We did this at a very fast speed and that gives me satisfaction. I won't have any comments [on its success] until after the Games."

Among the visitors to Athens this summer who will be looking with particular interest at what is going on behind the scenes, will be a VIP contingent lobbying for London's bid to stage the 2012 Games, including Tony Blair, Mayor Ken Livingstone and the chairman of the bid company, Barbara Cassani. Angelopoulos, the first woman to lead a bid, is prevented by IOC rules from commenting on current bids but as a committed Anglophile - she lived in Chelsea and her children were schooled in the capital - it is fair to say she will watch London's efforts with interest. She also met Cassani and her colleagues at an IOC meeting in Prague last summer.

She says: "Because I was president of a bidding city, I know how important it is for that city to catch the spirit of its citizens and show that to the world. There are so many cities that want to have this honour but every city has to find its own strong points and weak points and it has to decide how this will influence the Olympic family. The Olympics give an opportunity to a city, to its people and its workforce to completely change their attitude."

Much is at stake for Angelopoulos professionally: if the Games are a success, then she may be in line for one of the top jobs at the IOC. And closer to home, she may well receive cross-party support for next year's presidential elections in Greece if she decides to run, although she claims not to be thinking about either prospect.

"To tell you the truth, I have to be completely occupied with this task, not because we don't have the people but because intellectually speaking, my brain, my heart and my soul have to be devoted to it. This is a huge promise we have made to the international society. That's why I am not allowing myself to have different interests. This is the way we will achieve our goals."