Originally created 05/11/04

With IOC inspectors in town, roof arch begins slow glide at Athens Olympic stadium



ATHENS, Greece -- A section of roof at the main Olympic stadium began moving into place Monday, an important step for organizers in meeting a deadline set by IOC inspectors.

One of the two 231-foot-high half-domes crept along tracks pulled by hydraulic jacks. It could reach its anchor location by Tuesday, officials said.

"Today we won the first bet. The big bet is left: To prove we can do unique and safe Olympic Games," said Deputy Culture Minister Fani Palli-Petralia, who broke a bottle of wine on the structure before it started inching toward its permanent spot 234 feet away.

Earlier, International Olympic Committee inspectors visited the site to open their last major review of Athens' troubled preparations. The IOC has insisted the roof installation begin while the team was in Athens.

Failure to start the procedure - described as "gliding" the 17,000-ton arches along tracks - could have forced the IOC to consider suspending the project, one of the top worries amid the chronic venue and transportation delays for the Aug. 13-29 games.

But there was still a long road to complete the complicated installation. Any breakdowns or other problems could disrupt plans to have the $251 million stadium upgrade ready by the end of June to meet IOC timetables.

Olympic organizers are desperate to avoid the humiliating spectacle of an unfinished roof over the games' centerpiece stadium. They also face the challenge of transforming the dusty and debris-strewn construction zone around the stadium into a landscaped parkland in time for the games.

"We are battling with time," said Palli-Petralia, who claimed the roof would be in place by the end of May.

It was not known when movement would begin on the other half of the dome, which needs to travel 198 feet.

The team of IOC officials is headed by Denis Oswald, chief IOC overseer for Athens, and Gilbert Felli, executive director of the Olympics. The three-day visit is the last full inspection tour, but Oswald plans to return frequently to assess progress.

The roof's Spanish architect, Santiago Calatrava, envisions the structure as the signature image of the Athens Games and has described it as his "Olympic dream."

But the roof has been mired in delays and has become a symbol of the array of problems facing Athens. The roof - a skeleton of metal covered by glasslike plastic - is being built in two sections on either side of the 75,000-seat stadium.

The IOC has always said the roof is not necessary and could ask Greek officials to put the project on hold until after the games if it interferes with stadium work and pre-Olympic test events. However, August temperatures in Athens often exceed 100 degrees.

The IOC also will want updates on all aspects of the preparations. Most of the major venues have not been delivered to organizers for technical enhancements for TV coverage and scoring.

Delayed transportation links also will be examined. The tram, which is to connect the city center with seaside venues, and a suburban rail from the airport are both far from completion.

Officials also will assess a triple bombing of a suburban police station in Athens last week on the 100-day mark before the games. There has been no claim of responsibility for the attack, which caused damage but no injuries.