When the Greeks held the first Olympic contest in 776 BC, it was a simple foot race in the historic city. In 1896, the first modern Olympic Games -- held in Athens -- fielded 43 events.
In the Olympic games that Athens will open late tomorrow with an extravagant ceremony, 10,500 athletes are scheduled to compete in 28 different sports for a total of 301 gold medals.
Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, the head of the organizing committee for the Athens Olympic Games, said the opening ceremony will astonish the huge worldwide audience expected to watch it on TV and the thousands who will take seats in Athens' beautiful new, dramatically arched Olympic stadium. "The opening ceremony will tell the story of early Greece and the birth of these games through music, dance, pageantry," she said. "It will delight and captivate a global audience, and will surprise them too."
Details of the ceremony were supposed to be secret, but Greek news reporters have dug many of them out. Popular Greek weight lifter Pyrros Dimas, already a repeat gold medalist, will carry the Greek flag in the traditional parade of athletes. Technicians will flood the stadium floor, turning it into a great sea. A flaming comet is to shoot into the water and light up the linked five Olympic rings. Hundreds of drummers will thunder.
And for the show's finish -- well, organizers say that secret has been kept, and will be a major surprise.
The first full day of events is scheduled for 14 August, but the first events -- in soccer -- started earlier this week.
If there were a gold medal for management and organization, it would no doubt go to committee head Angelopoulos-Daskalak. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) awarded Athens the 2004 Summer Games in 1997. But three years of delays and administrative woes followed. Planning and preparation fell desperately behind. Angelopoulos-Daskalak was brought in to set it right.
The Athens 2004 Summer Games are the first since the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States. And, of course, Olympic officials have never forgotten the terror slayings of 11 Israelis by Palestinian guerrillas in the Munich Games in 1972. This year's games will have the largest security operation ever organized for a sporting event.
The numbers tell the story. Some 7,000 soldiers, police, and security officials are present. Greek authorities called in NATO to help. There will be sophisticated air surveillance. Patriot air-defense missiles have been deployed.
Individual countries have added security details to protect their athletes. Israeli Education and Sports Minister Limor Livnat said: "Since the 11 Israeli sportsmen were murdered in Munich [at the 1972 Olympic Games], we know that even the Olympic Games are under the threat of terror attacks, especially this year since 11 September. Of course the Israeli delegation made arrangements to make sure that they will not be victims of terror attacks."
Another cloud hangs over the Olympics as it does over many athletic events these days. That is doping, the use of performance-enhancing drugs by athletes seeking an unfair advantage. Officials at the Sydney Games in 2000 disqualified 11 athletes with additional investigations still pending. Athens Games authorities have already dismissed several competitors. Olympics Medical Commission Director Arne Ljungquist said officials expect more eliminations to come.
"There are a few elements which make me believe that we may arrive at more positive tests. One element is the increased number of tests. But I think that is less relevant than the fact that over the full Olympic period, we will include the full list of substances, even at so-called noncompetition tests," Ljungquist said.
The Olympic Games traditionally seek to keep the spirit of the event free from politics. But traditionally, politics intrudes anyway. A team from war-shattered Iraq is in Athens this year. Athletes from the U.S. team have been asked to celebrate their wins modestly and accept their losses graciously, to avoid raising anti-American sentiment. Teams from North and South Korea will march jointly in the opening ceremony, as they did in Sydney. The two Koreas are trying now to negotiate a pact to perform as a single team at the 2008 Games in Beijing.
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