Athens organisers (ATHOC) and the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) top executive overseeing the 2004 Games presented a more-or-less bright picture in terms of progress and a united front here on Thursday, stressing that cooperation amongst all sides is excellent and that every project is feasible, even amid pressing deadlines. In fact, the IOC said the pace of preparations has dramatically accelerated since the last inspection in February, using the well-known “syrtaki” dance as an example of “starting slow” but finishing at a break-neck pace.
The 10th visit here by the high-ranking IOC Coordination Commission — again headed by its Swiss chairman, Denis Oswald — comes at a crucial time for the closely watched 2004 Olympics, as the first round of “test events” are only a few months away (August), events the Lausanne-based organisation has repeatedly stressed will be a barometer for the upcoming Olympic Games’ quality.
“Everything that is expected to happen is feasible within the next 500 days … but there are a number of projects under time pressure,” Oswald said in reference to a handful of nagging delays at certain venues, most notably at the Helliniko coastal complex, where the softball, baseball, field hockey, basketball preliminaries, handball finals, fencing and canoe/kayak slalom events will be held.
“In some areas you can afford to have projects with a 30- or 60-day delay, but with others you cannot tolerate any slippage…” he said, noting that a month-long delay would be catastrophic for a project due to be delivered a week before the Games begin on Aug. 13.
As in previous visits, Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis received the IOC delegation prior to the press conference, with the preceding two days filled with numerous contacts with both a handful of top government ministers and ATHOC’s leadership.
In terms of the all-important test events, Oswald reiterated that they would be held in the venues where the actual competitions will take place in August 2004, regardless of whether the facilities and surrounding overlays are 100 percent completed. Some test events, he added, have been cancelled because facilities will not be ready to host them.
Earlier, ATHOC President Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki reiterated that security “was, is and will be our No. 1 priority”. Her comment came weeks after the Greek government awarded a much-anticipated multi-million-euro contract for 2004 security, which alleviated much of the IOC and ATHOC’s concerns.
On his part, Oswald said the IOC had considered a wide range of scenarios vis-à-vis security threats even before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in America, even one with a plane aimed at an Opening or Closing Ceremony.
In an apparent bid to smooth over earlier criticism, particularly following a controversial interview of his published by the German “Der Spiegel” magazine, Oswald praised preparations during Thursday’s press conference at ATHOC’s state-of-the-art headquarters in the Nea Ionia district, referring to “well-done” planning for overlays; an apparent lack of delay for equipment tenders; improved ATHOC-government cooperation; security, and even the design of venues, noting that “what has been presented is fantastic”.
Reversing gears and spelling out concerns, Oswald cited the delayed demolition and rebuilding of Karaiskaki stadium – slated to host the 2004 soccer finals — before clarifying that PM Simitis himself offered assurances only hours earlier that a private company awarded the deal will deliver on time.
Other concerns, as expected, focused on the Helliniko complex near the old Athens airport as well as the Peristeri venue (western Athens) for boxing.
Finally, he mentioned improvements and refurbishment of the main Athens Olympic Sports Complex (OAKA), where the Opening and Closing ceremonies will take place along with practically all of the athletic competitions. Besides the dome, Oswald referred to roadworks surrounding OAKA and even a provisional roof over the open-air natatorium as pressing. Regarding the above, he said the government has assured him that the projects will be ready on time.