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Greece Struggles to Clear Hurdles in Sprint to Games

Times Staff Writer

With fanfare and free hors d’oeuvres, the publicity-savvy mayor of this ancient city, Dora Bakoyannis, gathered the national and international press at a party to unveil a media center for this summer’s Olympic Games.

Basking in the limelight, Bakoyannis extolled the virtues of ancient Athens and its great cultural legacy. Minutes into the session, however, came the showstopper: Why, demanded an American interloper, are the city’s stray dogs disappearing?

That is exactly the kind of question Bakoyannis and other senior Greek officials do not want to hear.

As they struggle to prepare sports venues in time for the opening of the Olympics in three months, they’re also struggling to put out fires on many other fronts.

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Bombings last week, labor unrest, fatal construction accidents, disgruntled prostitutes, disenfranchised property owners and, yes, dogs that have been displaced (or worse) -- these are the somewhat unsavory sideshows at the margin of Greece’s enthusiastic attempt to make the Olympics a time of glitter, gold and national boosterism.

Greek officials are evoking the glories of millenniums past to celebrate the return of the Games to the place of their ancient birth and their modern revival. But they also have linked Greece’s very identity as an up-to-date European member of the Western fold with its ability to pull off the colossal event. They want to dispel the notion that Greece is the poor stepchild of the European Union.

It’s an uphill battle.

Can Athens’ electrical grid hold up under the demands of thousands of air-conditioning-demanding visitors in August? Can the antiquated sewage system dispose of their waste? Already, signs in public restrooms warn against putting toilet paper in the bowl lest the pipes clog and burst.

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And then there was the catfight over the dogs.

Until recently, thousands of stray dogs roamed the capital, lounging in downtown’s Constitution Square at the entrance to the subway or pacing at the foot of the Acropolis. Dogs hold an honored place in Greek mythology -- in Homer’s “The Odyssey,” it was his hunting dog that recognized Odysseus upon his return after a 20-year absence -- but today some Greeks are said to dump their pets when they tire of them or go on vacation.

It all began when a visiting Ukrainian coach was bitten by a mutt. And then someone started poisoning the dogs.

The uproar, especially from foreign animal rights advocates, was enormous. Greek officials denied that they were behind the poisonings and countered that they had launched a compassionate program of rounding up the strays and neutering, inoculating and cleaning them. If they are not adopted, the officials insist, they will be returned to their “original environment.”

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Athens city officials say they are spending about $2.2 million to handle about 5,000 strays. The number of abandoned canines is thought to be six times that.

After the dogs came the prostitutes. The city wanted to crack down on legal brothels. The well-organized hookers union fought the move. After all, the Olympics could be a time of enormous demand. The battle continues.

And 3,000 Greeks are fighting the government over properties seized to build Olympic venues. City officials say fair compensation was paid, but the owners say it wasn’t enough. Mostly farmland, the properties had belonged to some families since before World War II.

Then there were the construction workers. With most of Athens resembling one huge construction pit, and the Olympic price tag going up by the day, union leaders are warning that pressure to finish on time, or even ahead of schedule, is leading to a rash of accidents.

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Eleven laborers have been killed on the job at Olympic venues under construction, according to the Greek Union of Construction Workers. Since 2002, there have been 67 deaths on all public works projects, the union said.

Pressure to work double shifts and the lack of basic safety equipment and procedures are to blame, the union said. George Theodorou, secretary-general of the union, said 70% of the workers building the Olympic Village, where five of the deaths occurred, were foreigners without legal protections or benefits, recruited by subcontractors to save money. “We are paying for this construction boom with our blood,” Theodorou said.

Senior Greek officials acknowledged that accidents had occurred, but said they mostly involved unskilled workers who ignored safety rules. Government inspectors check sites routinely, the officials said, but it is impossible to be sure that safety measures are always followed.

One inspector’s report listed -- and journalists have seen -- a string of violations, including workers without hardhats or safety belts and wearing flip-flops or canvas shoes; scaffolding without railing or with planks smaller than the required width; and pits without warning signs.

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The statistics don’t include the injured, such as Ibrahim Alissa, a 30-year-old Syrian. He fell from an upper floor at the Olympic Village in April 2002, knocked from his footing by the force of a plastering machine. He was left paralyzed.

Alissa and other friends from Syria said they were under pressure to work fast. They said they were among hundreds of immigrants without papers -- mostly Arabs and Albanians -- who were given jobs building the Olympic venues and housing complexes, no questions asked.

“Everyone knows there’s work to be had,” said another Syrian, Abed Latif. “You can walk right in.”

On the flip side, the frenzied drive to finish in time for the Games has been plagued by union-inspired work stoppages. A one-day strike March 31, staged by Greece’s largest labor federation, brought Athens to a halt. Workers want an 8% raise.

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Construction firms and officials from the International Olympic Committee dismissed the shutdown as meaningless. But Greece’s new prime minister said this was crunch time.

“Not a single hour can be wasted,” said Costas Karamanlis, who took charge of the problematic preparations after his conservative New Democracy Party won election in March.

The new government has sought to place much of the blame for delays and other hitches on the Socialists, who had ruled for 11 years, saying things will be much better from now on.

Since the first-blush enthusiasm when Athens won the Olympic bid seven years ago, Greeks have been slow to warm up to the idea of the Games. Many wondered what they would get out of it. Was the investment of so much money really worth it? Would the Olympic obsession with security, in fact, make their placid country a target?

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Every so often, leftists of various stripes stage an anti-Olympics demonstration. Greece has long been wary of imperialist intervention, and the idea of security forces from NATO, the United States and elsewhere makes many Greeks nervous.

About six months ago, one could survey Athenians randomly and be hard-pressed to find anything but opposition to the Olympics. But more recently, as the date approaches, the sentiment seems to be shifting a bit.

“I can’t say I’m enthusiastic about this, but I think in the end they will pull it off,” said Athens resident Kyriakos Chandrdis, 45. “What I’m worried about is after the Games. What will happen with all these public works? How will we be able to take advantage of all the money spent?”

“I have no doubt we’ll all have a good time,” said mechanic Nikos Papathanasiou, 27. “It’s what happens afterward that’s a concern, and no one can know.”

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