A monthly look at Athens and the countdown to the Olympics
MARATHON, Greece -- Athens' chief Olympic organizer often tosses out the same retort about overcoming delays: We are running a marathon at a sprinter's pace.
But ask critics about work to upgrade the route of the classic race, and they say it's been moving at a shepherd's pace.
"Unacceptable," snapped Greece's new public works minister, Giorgos Souflias, last month after touring the wasteland of dirt, pipes, rubble and cables along more than two-thirds of the 26.2-mile course from ancient Marathon to central Athens.
The objective is simple: widen the narrow roadway to give runners more elbow room, open space for television cameras and expand a key transportation link to some venues.
But almost nothing with the Athens Olympics is easy. Work on the marathon route got started years late. Then the main contractor couldn't meet the payroll. A new company was hired just days after March 7 elections that dumped the incumbent Socialists, which allowed most Olympic works to slip behind schedule.
The International Olympic Committee has a pile of worries. Will the main stadium be finished? What about the new tram line to get spectators to seaside venues? The marathon, however, could turn out to be the biggest nail biter of all.
The new government has optimistically set a June 15 completion date. But the contractor estimated it will take at least 120 days to widen the road, build a new starting zone and add some greenery. Work is just getting up to full speed. Do the math. It's possible crews will be smoothing asphalt even as athletes arrive.
Much is at stake. The marathon will be one of the showcase events at the Aug. 13-29 Games.
Legend says the messenger Pheidippides ran from Marathon to Athens to announce the Greek victory over Persian invaders in 490 B.C. He delivered the news and then dropped dead of exhaustion, which has given rich fodder for satirists and others mocking the Olympic workathon.
The race - following a course possibly different than Pheidippides' journey - was part of the first modern games in 1896 in Athens and helped inspire the inaugural Boston Marathon in April 1897.
A skinny shepherd, Spyros Louis, won the first Olympic race and gained immortality as a Greek hero. The course this August will be the same - finishing in the marble stadium that hosted the games 108 years ago.
Any failures to finish the road project will be impossible to hide. The work snakes alongside the road like a giant - and dirty - open wound.
"It's classic, all right," grumbled Panos Soulides, making his way home through a moonscape of gravel and rocks. "It's a classic mess by the Olympic organizers."
A recent journey along the route reaffirmed Athens' self-inflicted motto: Lots to do and not a lot of time to do it.
Marathon village: Crews work on a starting line station above a dry river bank clogged with trash. The area is cluttered with piles of wood, bricks and stone. Scavengers drive around in pickup trucks nabbing stray bits of metal.
Mile 2.2: A car is wedged in a deep pit left uncovered in the construction zone. A vegetable seller waters down the dirt with a garden hose to quell the dust clouds.
Mile Four: A broken water pipe floods the marathon route. Across the road, men sell live chickens and ducklings.
Mile 5.1: Traffic is diverted around a mound of rubble and tree branches. Graffiti bearing an anarchist group's mark reads, "Social struggle, not Olympic Games."
Mile 6.3: Three backhoes sit idle.
Mile 10: A crane hoists a stump and roots as big as a Volkswagen.
Mile 12: A sheep herder leads his flock through the construction zone.
Miles 13-15: No workers here. Sections of three-foot-wide drainage pipes sit amid swirling dust clouds, forcing some residents and shopkeepers to wear scarves or masks.
Mile 17: Lines of workers in fluorescent green vests dig trenches at a planned underpass at a busy intersection.
After a few more miles, the course crosses the Athens city line. The bulk of the construction is over. But there are still plenty of eyesores until the glory of the marble stadium finish.
Much of central Athens along the marathon route is a hodgepodge of stately neoclassic buildings, tired '60s-era apartment blocks and shops.
Mayor Dora Bakoyianni has appealed to landlords to spruce up their buildings and trim the forest of TV aerials.
There's little that can be done outside the city. The marathon passes through Greece's equivalent of strip mall purgatory - with local color like the souvlaki stands and multipurpose kiosks that dot nearly every urban corner.
Architect Nikos Siapkidis told the Athens News that the marathon at the Sydney Olympics was a "beauty to behold."
"In comparison, our marathon course looks like that of a Third World country," he said.
With deadlines pressing, the top Olympic organizer, Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, has backed off her marathon analogy. She has a new one.
"We are in the last 100 meters," she said.
Athens organizers site: http://www.athens2004.com
International Association of Athletics Federations: http://www.iaaf.org
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