Originally created 03/27/04

Less word play, more work is what Olympics need

After a recent meeting with Athens Olympic organizers, the U.S. ambassador to Greece reported back to his countrymen that some optimism would be in order right about now.

"I just think," Ambassador Thomas Miller said, "it's really important to stop using words - emotional words - like 'afraid,' 'scared' or this or that" when discussing expectations for the upcoming Summer Games.

Fine. Would "unfinished," "unprepared" and "overwhelmed" work for you?

On Thursday, the flame that will burn in Athens during the games was lit amid ruins in the very same spot where the Olympics were born. That was 2,780 years ago. From the look of things, like too many of Greece's other Olympic venues, nobody has worked on that place in a long while, either.

Still, in what has to be considered a promising start, the torch-lighting ceremony went off without a hitch. The hosts' plan to ignite the flame by reflecting the sun's rays off a concave mirror worked to perfection when the weather cleared, as if on cue, and the sun peered through fast-moving clouds.

The way things have been going lately, it's probably a good thing they didn't have to borrow a pack of matches. With the games just five months off, nobody seems to be sure whether Greek organizers have finally got the message - rely less on serendipity and more on hard work.

That was the theme of the brief remarks International Olympic Committee chief Jacques Rogge relayed during the torch-lighting ceremony.

"It was in Olympia that everything began ... and today everything is going to begin again for Athens," he said.

Rogge has tried setting deadlines before. He's tried waving both carrots and sticks, and received little more than a shrug in return. After the ceremony, he told The Associated Press: "All our experts are saying now there is still enough time to finish everything for the opening ceremony."

But behind the scenes, Rogge and the rest of the IOC bosses are begging their hosts to scrap borderline projects and concentrate on the essential ones.

Exactly what this means for the most essential venue, the main Olympic Stadium, remains to be seen. The latest deadline for the roof the Greeks promised to cover the venue is April 28, and the work is far from finished. Already abandoned were plans for a roof to cover the Olympic pool. The IOC must be cringing at the thought of what gets sacrificed next.

Even before the U.S. ambassador sent back word that criticism wasn't going to help move things along any, the U.S. swim team was struggling to bite its collective lip. It's such a deep and talented squad, supplemented by the best training and technology money can buy, that few experts would have been surprised to see it deliver two dozen medals total, with an armful of golds and world records piled on top. Now, all bets are off.

"It's a disappointment, a great disappointment," eight-time Olympic medalist Gary Hall Jr. said.

"The heat has a lot to do with physical performance. You're still going to see great swimming. At the same time, it does affect the athletes and their ability to perform."

Maybe it's not fair that the sun will make the pool deck too hot or the water too slow, but there's no point in wasting any more energy worrying about it. The Greeks certainly won't. They've got even more worrisome preparations to finish and if they fail to complete those, more than the quality of the performances will be at risk.

They're on the hook for an $800 million security tab as it is. And so, encouraging as it was to watch Greek javelin champion Costas Gatzioudis leave Ancient Olympia with the sleek olive wood-and-magnesium torch in hand, just as reassuring is what most of us didn't see - commandos hiding nearby in the groves with binoculars and automatic weapons.

Let the games begin.


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