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Greece: Anxieties Grow For Olympics As Bomb Blasts Shake Athens

  • Breffni O'Rourke

With just 100 days left to go before the opening of the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, bomb blasts in the Greek capital have renewed fears the games could be the target of terrorist attacks. But tensions are rising not only because of the terror threat. It's still unclear whether all of the Olympic facilities will be finished in time for the opening of the games on 13 August.

6 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The Olympic Games in Athens will be an occasion for superlatives -- both positive and negative.

A record 202 countries will be competing in these games, compared with the 199 countries that participated in the last Olympics in Sydney in 2000.

But as athletes around the world prepare to bring their training schedules to a peak, many of the Olympic facilities in and around the Greek capital are still being built.

Twelve of the 30 venues are completed. Another four sites are at least 97 percent finished. And another 12 facilities are 90 percent ready.

"Everybody is afraid that the Olympic Games will be used as the best means of exposure for some kind of political statement."
Among the most pressing tasks is to lift into position the main stadium's two futuristic roof panels -- weighing 18,000 tons in total. After repeated delays, the job is set for this weekend. A worried International Olympic Committee has been urgently pushing the organizers to complete the stadium.

Duncan McKay, a sports journalist for "The Guardian" daily, said the elaborate steel roof has taken on an almost symbolic significance in Greece.

"I think the roof will be put on -- it has to be, because it has become a matter of Greek pride now," McKay said. "I think it is the same with a lot of the [other] venues. The venues will be finished because it is so vital to the Greek sense of well-being and pride."

McKay said he believes the city's infrastructure, however, will likely fall short of what's needed.

"The problem is going to be the surrounding infrastructure," McKay said. "I don't think the tram line is going to be finished, and there are problems with the underground [metro] systems. So, I think all the [Olympic] facilities will be there and in place, but it is actually a question of how people are going to access them."

Apart from the builders' race against time, security is also a main focus. These are the first Summer Games since the start of what is now called the war on terrorism, which began in earnest after the attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001.

The risk level at these games is considered the highest ever. To add to the nervousness, three bombs exploded yesterday outside an Athens police station.

There were no injuries, and Greek authorities assured the public that the incident does not reflect on the Olympics. "It's a very small incident," Athens Mayor Dora Bakoyannis said. "It's isolated. It's an incident that can happen in any capital of the world. It has nothing to do with the security of the Olympic Games."

Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis made similar comments, noting the games will be protected with help from NATO and the European Union.

Despite that, McKay said the Athens Games are surrounded by quite a bit of fear. He noted there is no way of ensuring total security at the games, with hundreds of thousands -- or potentially millions -- of visitors packing the city and the Olympic sites.

"We saw that at Atlanta [at the 1996 games] when there was incredible security there, but [someone] still managed to place a bomb which killed one person and injured 100."

With massive television audiences worldwide, Rheinhart Stelter of the European Federation of Sports Psychology says the games provide the perfect means for terrorists to "advertise" their cause.

"Everybody is afraid that the Olympic Games will be used as the best means of exposure for some kind of political statement," Stelter said.

Stelter said the risk of terrorist incidents at the games places athletes under added stress. But he said each athlete has his or her own "coping style" -- ways of dealing with outside pressure.

"Most of the athletes belong to a group of people which has worked so much in stressful situations that they, in fact, might not be placed in any psychological danger," Stelter said.

Christoph Meyer, a defense and security analyst at the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels, said he is inclined to think that militant groups are unlikely to see the Olympics as a prime venue for terrorist attacks.

"[The Olympics] are a symbol for peaceful cooperation among nations. And, of course, Arab nations have their athletes there, too," Meyer said. "I don't think [the Olympics] would be a particularly well-received target across the world. And I do think most terrorist attacks are not random. They do have a political motivation, and they are planned to achieve a certain purpose."
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