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Athens Feels Heat on Venues

Times Staff Writer

With the Olympic torch lighting set for today in Olympia, Greece, the race is on in Athens to get dozens of venues up and running even as security officials assess plans to safeguard the first Summer Games since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Officials say they are confident that all essential venues and transportation facilities will be completed before the Aug. 13 opening ceremony. At the same time, contingency plans are in the works for even the most high-profile projects, including the far-from-finished roof over Olympic Stadium. A deadline for the roof is set for April 28, officials said.

By taking it down to the wire, International Olympic Committee monitors say, there may be little or no time for organizers to stage some on-site “test events,” such as a track meet in the stadium, to make sure the stopwatches work, computers run properly and ushers know how to direct fans to the bathrooms.

Such practice runs test the physical layouts themselves, the behind-the-scenes technology and Games staff and management.

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In Athens, though, time is short. The Games start in 141 days.

“When you make a concept, when you put things on paper, you are never sure it will work the way you want it to work,” said Denis Oswald, a Swiss lawyer and the IOC’s liaison for the Athens Games. “It’s only when you practice you realize some unexpected difficulties or things do not move the way you want them to move.”

In Sydney, site of the 2000 Summer Games, organizers had a full year to stage test events. “They had test events for everything and enough time to make corrections for everything,” Oswald said. “It’s why they were so good at the time of the Games.”

A practice run last year at the Greek rowing venue north of Athens showed the value of such events. It was so windy that some of the boats were swamped.

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As a result, organizers have moved the races to the early morning and early evening, when calmer winds are more likely.

A number of test events have been held over the last several months. Officials with various sports federations -- weightlifting in particular -- have expressed delight with the facilities that are finished, saying they are first-rate.

Test events held last week and this week for gymnastics went very well, said Bob Colarossi, president of USA Gymnastics. The artistic competitions took place in an existing arena, but the rhythmic event took place in a facility Colarossi said was “gorgeous” and had risen from the ground in the 18 months since he had last visited. “We’re in a fortunate position where all of our stuff has been built,” he added.

Two test track meets are set for Olympic Stadium, one in June, another in July. It is possible, officials said, that construction crews will be working around the athletes at the June event.

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Getting the stadium roof into place is not easy. Designed by the noted Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, it is designed to rest on two graceful steel arches. The arches arrived outside the stadium in pieces. Once they are put together, each needs to be slid into place around the stadium. After that, a canopy needs to be hung.

The roof was designed to show the glories of a modern Greece. If unfinished, however, it could become emblematic of the perils of awarding the Games to a small country, even the one that originated -- in 776 B.C. -- the idea of an Olympic Games.

Calatrava has said deadlines will be met.

But if on April 28 it’s no-go, Olympic officials also say they are now considering not only Plan B but Plan C.

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Plan B: The arches are slid into place around the stadium but the covering is not installed.

Plan C: “You just stop the work and make the surroundings acceptable,” Oswald said.

Athens was awarded the 2004 Games in 1997; Greek officials essentially wasted the first three years and the government, which oversees Games-related construction, has since been playing catch-up.

Last weekend, plans to put a roof over the Olympic swimming pool were dropped. The reason: not enough time.

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Some observers said the decision showed the decisiveness of the new conservative Greek national government, but others wondered what else is at risk. The international swimming federation expressed “total surprise.”

The decision means that, as in Los Angeles in 1984 and Barcelona in 1992, the swimming events will be held under the summer sun. Organizers say they will try to shade athletes at poolside.

The U.S. swimming trials are scheduled to be held at an outdoor pool -- in Long Beach, in July.

It also remains uncertain, meanwhile, whether the last three kilometers of a tram line connecting the city center to Olympic venues south of Athens will be completed. The problem is not the tracks out to the south, but the ones in town.

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Jacques Rogge, the IOC president, said Wednesday in a telephone interview that there will be “no cutting corners” in regards to “core” Games venues and facilities. But if Athens’ “urban legacy” isn’t completed until after August, so be it.

“We might have to take other contingency plans,” Rogge said. “We do that in due time but we have an agenda of what I call turning points -- where we continue or not continue. In all cases, any contingency plans are not going to diminish the quality of the Games.”

In Olympia on Wednesday, in anticipation of today’s flame-lighting ceremony, hundreds of police lined the roads and metal detectors were put up near the ancient site from where the torch relay will begin.

The U.S. has played a key role in a seven-nation group that has been working on Games security issues with Greek police.

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U.S. officials said Wednesday that President Bush intends to meet May 20 at the White House with the new Greek prime minister, Costas Karamanlis.

Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, said the agenda includes “final preparations for a successful and safe Olympics in Athens.”

Hundreds of U.S. commandos participated in a two-week security training exercise in Athens that ended Tuesday with a simulated chemical attack and hostage-taking situation.

Mindful that the world seems different since Sept. 11, Rogge said that today’s flame-lighting ceremony carries “an extra dimension.”

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Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, president of the Athens 2004 organizing committee, said by telephone that the lighting of the torch is “more important than ever.”

For the first time, the torch will travel to South America and Africa; it is due in Los Angeles on June 16.

Watching the days tick by until August, Angelopoulos-Daskalaki said she is mindful of the pressures. But today, she said, is a day for celebrating. And those within the organizing committee, she said, remain confident that come Aug. 29, at the closing ceremony, the Athens Games will be regarded as a success.

“We believe we can surprise the world,” she said.

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Times staff writer Helene Elliott contributed to this report.


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