Originally created 06/29/02

Greek government defends cut back of Olympic projects



ATHENS, Greece -- The Greek government on Friday defended a decision to scale back a number of Olympic sports venues because of high costs, describing some of the projects as unneeded luxuries.

Greece's Olympic Committee also admitted that a project to refurbish a soccer stadium had fallen through. An alternate site for the final match in one of the games' premier events has not been found.

"The government will not allow any projects which are just a luxury for the games," said government spokesman Dimitris Gerou. "We don't want to leave any white elephants behind."

Athens 2004 chief Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki has said Greece hopes to save from $180 million to $285 million by reducing the scope of some venues - most located at Athens' old Hellenikon international airport.

They include one less hockey field, a smaller facility for slalom and kayak and temporary stands for many sports.

The government has not cut back on security costs, however, and submitted a plan for legal approval by Greece's highest administrative court allowing the police to hire specialized anti-terrorism officers for the Olympics. They include chemical and biological warfare specialists, terrorism analysts, security planners and computer network experts.

Greece plans to spend a record $600 million for Olympic security, a top concern for the International Olympic Committee and organizers as the country has in the past been criticized for its inability to crack down on domestic terrorism.

Although officials claim the reductions are due to decreased requirements, cost overruns and overly ambitious plans are thought to be the main reason the Olympics budget has skyrocketed to nearly $6 billion - about twice the original estimate.

The high cost has led the government to also cut needed highway and infrastructure projects, while the defense ministry postponed the purchase of new jet fighters and other weapons systems to held fund the Olympics.

Decreasing the size of sports venues and building temporary facilities instead of permanent ones have also dealt a blow to government promises to leave a "golden legacy" for Greek athletes after the games.

Some opposition political parties said the new measures bolster perceptions that Athens should have never bid for the Olympics, which the IOC awarded in 1997.

"The plans that are being abandoned one after the other are just the gift wrapping. Soon the emperor will have no clothes," said Left Coalition party spokesman Alekos Flambouraris.

The developments are just the latest problems plaguing Athens' Olympic preparations.

In 2000, construction delays had grown so large that the IOC warned the games were in danger. Organizers since made up for much of that lost time, but with just two years left the IOC has said no time remains for further delays.

IOC officials put Athens on notice Thursday and said they will get "pretty tough" on organizers and the government after discovering new delays of about 50 days at areas such as Hellenikon - which will host numerous sports events.

The chief IOC overseer, Denis Oswald, also expressed surprise over the new problem with the Karaiskaki soccer stadium in Athens' port of Piraeus.

Greek Olympic Committee President Lambis Nikolau, in charge of the stadium project, said there was no time left to refurbish it. He said Athens organizers had to find a solution.

"It is not our issue where the final will be played," Nikolau said. "There isn't enough time to have it at Karaiskaki. There is no time."

Gerou said the government would sign the Hellenikon contracts by August.

"There are no delays, there is a shortage of a few weeks," Gerou said.

He also denied reports that the government was planing to sell prime lots at the old airport after the Olympics in order to cover some of its Olympics costs. Premier Costas Simitis had promised last year that the 1,200-acre airfield would be turned into a park.