Sat, Oct 25, 2003 - Page 18 News List

Spotlight turns to unfinished business

ATHENS 2004 Olympic organizers say the main stadium and a tramline to the venues will be finished on time, but inspectors are not as confident

THE GUARDIAN , ATHENS

Work at the Olympic Stadium in Athens continues, seen from the International broadcasting Center, during the venue tour by the IOC's Coordination Commission for the 2004 Games on Thursday.

PHOTO: AFP

Olympic inspectors made a tour of key sites around Athens on Thursday as Greek ministers tried to allay their concerns over delays in the construction of what many had hoped would be the jewel in the crown of the games -- the main stadium's giant glass-and-steel roof -- and two crucial transport projects.

The ministers said all the sports venues, including the stadium's landmark dome, would be ready by the time test events were held in June next year, two months before the Olympics.

But inspectors from the International Olympic Committee, who will conduct one other check before the event, appeared unconvinced.

In particular, they are concerned about a new tramline and suburban railway which is supposed to be completed in time for the event.

The inspectors have questioned whether more than a quarter of a million visitors could reach venues around the sprawling, often gridlocked capital.

Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, who heads the 2004 Olympics organizing committee, conceded that they were worried.

"Concern has been expressed over the [suburban railway] project and this is one of the things we will discuss with the IOC to see how justified they are and to see how we will get past the difficult phase."

The 24km tramline and 32km railway are meant to link stadiums with the international airport.

The tram system alone is expected to transport 8,500 spectators an hour. IOC officials see the project as vital given the Greek capital's notoriously traffic-clogged streets.

But slipping construction deadlines -- blamed on insufficient environmental studies, court cases brought by protesting residents and the discovery of antiquities -- have raised the possibility of scrapping more than a third of the tramline's planned stations.

The Greek government has promised to provide buses to ferry people from the airport if the suburban railway is not finished on time.

Greece's culture minister, Evangelos Venizelos, who is in charge of government preparations for the games, tried to ease the IOC's concerns.

"The lines needed for the games will be ready," he said. "We will do even more than what the IOC wants. We will have the whole project ready ... not just the parts needed for the Olympics."

Greece is the smallest state since Finland, in 1952, to stage the Olympics.

Increasingly the preparations are being seen as a project to modernize a country that only 170 years ago belonged to the Ottoman empire's forgotten southern reaches.

"What we are building is the new Greece," Costas Simitis, the Greek prime minister, said last month.

Although IOC officials including the committee's president, Jacques Rogge, have recently praised Athens for the progress it has made in the construction of many sites, they privately reiterated their concern about the delays that have dogged work on the main stadium's ambitious arched roof.

Before ending their visit today, the IOC delegation is expected to urge the Greek organizers to finalize a multi-million dollar security contract, Kikis Lazarides, the Greek Cypriot IOC member said.

"But what the Greeks will succeed in doing is hosting a very different Olympics, by blending the modern with the ancient.

"Only they can do it and, in that respect, the games will be unique."

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