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Olympics 2004: Final Preparations Testing Athens' Olympic Mettle

With just days to go until opening ceremonies on 13 August, Greece appears to have weathered a storm of criticism and complaint and looks set for the start of the 2004 Summer Olympic Games. The venues are built, if tourists can just ignore the mess surrounding many sites. New roads are in place, although sidewalks are piles of rubble and road signs are misleading. The trains are running, but on a much smaller scale than originally planned. And ticket sales are on the rise, although not anywhere near where organizers had hoped. RFE/RL correspondent Tito Tejinder Singh reports on the final preparations from Athens.

Athens, 9 August (RFE/RL) -- Every August, Athenians desert the city for Greece's coastal regions or islands to escape the heat and dust of the hot Mediterranean summer. That's never been more true than this year, as more and more Greeks are deciding to watch the 2004 Summer Olympics on television.

At the port of Piraeus, Greeks can be seen leaving the mainland in hordes. Nikia, an Athens resident, spoke with RFE/RL as she boarded a ship bound for Crete: "There is no Olympic spirit, as we Greeks mean it. The only spirit here is the commercial one."

A variety of incidents over the past few months have done little to boost the confidence of ordinary Greeks.

On 12 July, Athens and a large part of southern Greece were hit by a blackout, leaving residents without electricity for many hours.

On 19 July, a new tram service was inaugurated in the city, but the system has been criticized for infrequent stations that also do not have any protection from the sun for waiting passengers. The new trams have also been hit frequently by cars.

On 20 July, organizers put up special road signs directing drivers to Olympic venues, but within days nearly all were covered with black plastic bags due to an uproar in the local media about wrong directions.

On 29 July, telephone service to Athens' northern suburbs, including 14 Olympic venues, were affected by a snag at a main telecommunication center. Lines serving more than 40,000 of nearly 50,000 telephones went dead.

But now, with just days to go, thousands of athletes are arriving in Athens and preparations seem to be generally on schedule.

"It is true. We received a lot of criticism during the preparation of these Olympic Games," said Spyros Capralos, general-secretary for the Olympic Games for the Greek government and the man responsible for the completion of the city's Olympic infrastructure. "All these issues that we have been criticized [for] have been dealt with, and we see now that they have been successfully addressed, and all these works are finished, starting with the roof [of the main Olympic stadium] but also all the other infrastructure projects. I don't say that it was an issue of blackmailing, but it was mostly that bad news or criticism sell better than success stories, like the one we have put together. I think that the Athens games will end up being a huge success story, not just for having a successful Olympic Games, but the legacy that is left for Athens and Greece, which in my opinion is much bigger than what was done for Barcelona, [which] everybody talks about today."

Some analysts fear the final cost of the 2004 Athens games could hit $12.5 billion, from an original estimate of $5.5 billion two years ago. A record $1.5 billion is being spent on security alone.

"It is different than when we were bidding for the games [before the attacks of 11 September 2001]," Capralos said. "We have invested much more in security infrastructure, as well as in security in general. But I would say the world is also different. Greece is doing whatever is humanly possible to have a safe and secure games. Of course, the cost and the burden is substantial, but we have committed to have a safe and secure games, and that is what we are doing."

Dennis Kefalakos is the editor of "Naftamboriki," the leading financial Greek daily. He criticized the security budget, pointing the finger at vested interests rather than perceived threats.

"The amount of money that is being spent on security issues is not directly related to threats," Kefalakos said. "It is directly related to pressures from the Americans, the French, the British, the Israelis, the Australians, and I don't know who else. They just press for more money. It's the modern time industry -- the largest modern time industry is security -- so everybody has to pay his dues to this industry, and the Olympics is the foremost customer for them."

A growing number of Greeks seem to share Kefalakos's views.

"Everything was made only for someone to make money -- not for Greece and not for us," said Katerina Sinekoglou, an Athens resident.

Olympics organizers said today that they expect full stadiums during the games despite lackluster ticket sales. So far, organizers have sold fewer than half of the total of 5.3 million available tickets. Four additional ticket centers were opened today in the city.

Capralos, the Greek Olympic organizer, remains upbeat, however: "The days that are coming are just to put the final touches and make sure that the city will look like a city celebrating the homecoming of the Olympic Games, and that is what we are doing from now until 13 August."

More stories about the Olympics from RFE/RL:

Muslim Women Athletes Move Ahead, But Don't Leave Faith Behind

After Medal-Winning Glory, What Next For Former Soviet Athletes?

Despite Problems, Olympic Ideals Endure

Games Struggle For Spotlight, But Prestige Remains

For Some Athletes, Behind The Medals Lies Real Gold