ATHENS.- Crucial preparations for the upcoming 2004 Olympic Games were the focus of a series of meetings this week as the new Karamanlis government got down to business after the swearing-in ceremony of the new cabinet. Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, who swept to victory over rival PASOK on March 7, met on Thursday with a one-hour meeting with new Alternate Culture Minister Fani Palli-Petralia.
“This is one of a series of meetings on Olympic preparations. Besides, as you know, (International Olympic Committee President) Jacques Rogge and his team are going to be here on Saturday,” Palli-Petralia said afterwards. She later headed for a briefing by outgoing culture ministry secretary for the Olympics Costas Kartalis. Kartalis — the “point man” for Olympic preparations since 1999 – resigned in the wake of PASOK’s defeat in Sunday’s elections despite an offer by the Karamanlis government to remain in his post until the Games in August. With only five months to go before the opening ceremony of the Games on Aug. 13, several Olympic projects are still in the “red zone”, such as the intricate new roof over the main Athens Olympic Stadium (OAKA), road construction works on the classical Marathon route, the construction of necessary power sub-stations, a new tram network and a suburban railway line.
Spyros Capralos was named the new Olympic Games General Secretary on Friday, replacing Costas Kartalis who resigned after New Democracy came into power following the March 7 general elections. Capralos, who until Friday was Executive Director of the Athens 2004 Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (ATHOC) was Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis’ personal choice.
”It’s a special honour for me that Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis chose me at this critical stage of Olympic preparations. I will continue to give my best efforts from my new position for the success of this enormous national cause,” Capralos said. He also thanked ATHOC President Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki for her confidence and excellent cooperation, as well as the management and employees of the Organising Committee.
Karamanlis, the nephew and namesake of Greek statesman Constantine Karamanlis, also kept the culture ministry portfolio for himself, an indication of the importance assigned to Olympic preparations.
The first meeting of Greece’s newest (and youngest post-war) premier with Rogge took place on Saturday in Athens. The influential IOC chief was among the first to send Karamanlis congratulations following his election victory.
New Cabinet ministers focus on Games
Town Planning and Public Works Minister George Souflias late this week expressed the government’s stern conviction that it will complete the high-profile roadway linking east Attica with Athens, better known as the classical Marathon route.
In fact, he described the status of the project, only five months before the Olympic Games, as ”totally unacceptable”.
Souflias visited the area to inspect the worksite along Marathon Boulevard, plagued by serious problems and delays for more than a year. Speaking to reporters, however, he stressed he was determined to finish the project on time. ”There is no talk about it,” he noted.
The Greek minister said he has scheduled a meeting, next Monday, between the main contractor, ministry officials and the mayor of Marathon to review the situation and to discuss any changes necessary to complete the project on time.
He also urged the new contractor to begin works in the Nea Makri-Pallini section of the road (with a length of 17 km) as of Tuesday, although contracts have not been signed yet. He also urged other contractors that participated in a tender not to raise any legal objections to the procedure.
The minister also pledged to find a way to pay four-months wages to workers of European Technical, the previous contractor of the project that declared bankruptcy.
Besides serving as the all-important Marathon route, the boulevard is the main roadway connecting north and northwest Athens with the Olympic Rowing Centre at Schinas (NW Attica prefecture, near the township of Marathon) as well as other related facilities, such as a “media village” at the coastal Aghios Andreas site.
Meanwhile, new Transport and Communications Minister Mihalis Liapis late this met with the heads of enterprises and organisations supervised by the ministry with activities related with Olympic Games’ preparations.
Liapis chaired a meeting with the heads of Hellenic Railways (OSE), ERGOSE, the Athens tram network, the Athens suburban rail line and the ministry’s management authority. He was briefed over progress of Olympic projects and asked for works to speed up and for deadlines to be met.
Greek government formally seeks NATO help for Olympics security
The Greek government has formally asked NATO to help with security arrangements for the Olympic Games taking place in Athens in August, foreign ministry spokesman George Koumoutsakos said on Friday.
”Completing a process that was already underway, the government on Friday asked the Atlantic Alliance to assist in the security for the Olympic Games, chiefly in the areas of air surveillance, joint patrolling of the sea and protection from chemical, biological and nuclear incidents,” he said.
Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis met with National Defence Minister Spilios Spiliotopoulos on Friday within the framework of his consultations with his newly-appointed ministers.
The two men discussed issues regarding the government’s priorities in the sphere of the Armed Forces and ahead of the Parliamentary debate on policy statements. They also discussed security measures for the summer Olympic Games.
Replying to reporters’ questions, Spiliotopoulos stated that it was not necessary for extraordinary measures to be taken in Greece in the shadow of the terrorist attack on Madrid’s rail network during Thursday morning’s rush-hour which killed at least 198 people in its wake.
The minister clarified that this assessment was made during Thursday’s meeting of the Armed Forces General Staff’s strategic crisis management centre. On the safety of the 2004 Olympic Games, Spiliotopoulos stressed that the existing planning will be intensified.
Main opposition Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) party leader George Papandreou told Foreign Affairs Minister Petros Molyviatis that PASOK did not have any objection to the government requesting NATO’s assistance in Olympic Games security issues, in a telephone conversation on Friday.
Papandreou said that the previous PASOK government had taken the necessary initial steps and added that ”we welcome any substantial assistance from wherever we can get it, but it will have to be applied within the framework of our principles and rules.”
Reacting to the Greek government’s formal request on Friday for NATO’s aid in security arrangements for the Olympic Games this summer, the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) issued an announcement saying that it was totally opposed to NATO’s involvement in the safety of the Games.
It accused the government of taking advantage of the sense of insecurity following the devastating terrorist attacks in Madrid in order to make its invitation to NATO.
Condemning the attack in Madrid, the announcement said that it formed part of a series of terrorist acts that began on September 11 that were being used to justify pre-emptive wars, such as those against Afghanistan and Iraq, and to restrict civil rights and liberties.
The Coalition of the Left Movements and Ecology (SYN) party also joined the ranks of those opposed to NATO’s involvement with Olympic Games security, through a statement SYN party leader Nikos Constantopoulos issued on Friday after being briefed by Foreign Affairs Minister Petros Molyviatis on the government’s decision.
In his statement, Constantopoulos underlines that his party ”had already expressed to the previous government and expresses to the present government once again its strong objection to Olympic Games security being essentially assigned to NATO”.
A massive exercise pertaining to Athens Olympic Games security, the biggest of its kind held to date, began this week and will conclude on March 23.
Code-named “Hercules’ Shield 2004”, the exercise will be jointly held by Greece and the United States in various parts of the country, involving some 1,500 personnel from various Greek law enforcement agencies as well as cadres from a handful of other countries. The emphasis will be on rapid anti-terrorism reaction at all command levels.
The two-week exercise – exceedingly timely in light of Thursday’s shocking bomb attacks in Madrid — will feature several scenarios of possible terrorist attacks on land and sea, including a ship hijacking or attacks with unconventional means.
Police sources said that the Hellenic Air Force will also patrol the skies.
US athletes confident over security
Triple Olympic champion Lenny Krayzelburg expressed confidence in the security of the Athens Olympic Games, speaking in New York this week.
The world’s top back-stroke swimmer and one of America’s most successful athletes, the Ukraine-born Krayzelburg said that despite 9/11 and concern about possible terrorist attacks, security at the Athens Games did not concern him.
“My main priority is to win”, he stated.
American swimmer Amanda Beard also said she felt confident about the 2004 Games’ security.
Finally, Athens Mayor Dora Bakoyianni reiterated that Greece and 2004 Olympics organisers (ATHOC) are doing “everything humanly possible” to ensure safe Olympic Games in August.
In comments to CNN news network last week, she cited the massive budget allocated for security at the Games – exceeding an unprecedented 700 million euros at present – and noted that a city on “red alert” is never an easy target.
Asked about would-be visitors who may be skeptical about visiting Athens due to the spectre of international terrorism, the popular Athens mayor replied that “if we changed our lives and plans we would only be bowing to terrorists.”
Finally, she dismissed any notion that the notorious “al-Qaeda” group has ever been active on Greek soil.