Originally created 04/24/04

It's a racket: Olympic 'triple shifts' turn Athens into sleepless city



ATHENS, Greece -- It's hard to sleep in Athens these days.

Jackhammers, steam rollers and asphalt pounders have been rattling a lot of bedroom windows as workers furiously try to meet deadlines before the Summer Olympics.

The city's main stadium complex, tram system and downtown squares are still being revamped or built from scratch, and noisy construction has gone on around the clock in a race to meet June deadlines for the Aug. 13-29 games.

"We're running on triple shifts so that everything will be ready," said Fani Palli Petralia, the government's top Olympic official. "We're turning night into day."

He's not exaggerating.

Under floodlights, immigrant workers in fluorescent vests dig earth, pour cement and lay tracks along the tram system which starts in center city and cuts through three residential neighborhoods before reaching Olympic venues by the seas. It's loud all the way.

Jackhammer crews take over when the sun comes up, joined by assorted machinery breaking up city sidewalks alongside smartly dressed Athenians at outdoor cafes.

"This is a job that should take seven years to finish. We're doing it in two," project supervisor Lefteris Tsitsanis told The Associated Press, raising his voice to be heard over the groan of an excavating machine.

"Unfortunately the public is having a difficult time," he said. "There's nothing else we can do. We don't have a minute to relax ... and it's impossible not to make noise."

Delays and costs - steadily accumulated since Athens was awarded the Games in 1997 - have been blamed on everything from simple time-wasting and lengthy class action law suits to the unearthing of more archaeological treasures in this ancient city.

The last-ditch surge in construction has left citizens in this city of 4 million people exasperated but resigned to the additional hassle, consumer protection official Ilias Kokouyiannis said.

Olympic crews have even been given a "siesta waiver" to get around police regulations enforcing quiet between 3 p.m. and 5:30 p.m.

"We get very many complaints regarding the works for Olympic games," said Kokouyiannis, head of the Athens-based Association for the Quality of Life. "People complain about Olympic works to let off steam ... We take the complaints down. But we only intervene in problems where we can get a result - and there are so many of those."

Other major complaints include traffic snarls caused by the construction, businesses cut off from customers by dug-up roads and the huge dust clouds kicked up by all of the work, Kokouyiannis said.

Kyriakos Psychas, of the environment ministry's department of noise abatement, acknowledged the frenzied work has caused a "big problem" but insisted it might be worth putting up with the noise level for a few months in order to enjoy the convenience of public transportation.