- Facilities are built and upgraded in a huge programme in preparation for the 2004 Games-

Athens on time to bring the Olympics back home

On 13 August 2004, when the flame is lit at the stadium in Athens to mark the opening of the Olympic Games, thousands of people will breathe a collective sigh of relief. The event may be more than three years away, but for the Greek organisers it is a race against time. They must ensure that the first Olympic Games to be held in their country since the event was revived passes off without incident, and that every associated promise is fulfiled. The various projects include the Olympic village, new stadia and massive infrastructure developments in and around the city of Athens.

Last year there were moments when the sheer scale of the construction programme threatened to overwhelm the authorities. These Games are enormously important to the Greeks, reviving not only their illustrious history and culture, but destined to spark renewed interest in the country. The organisation of the event itself, the massive public works and transport programme and the facilities being created for visitors will all serve as a benchmark for the New Greece. The International Olympic Committee inspection team, who visited Athens late last year, are much more optimistic now.

Jacques Rogge, the IOC vice-president and head of the commission in charge of over-seeing the Games, says he is convinced that everything will be ready on time. President of the Athens 2004 Organising Committee, Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, says: "Athens is on schedule, but the clock is ticking and there is no time to waste." The committee's budget is $1.7 billion.

Mrs Angelopoulos-Daskalaki says that one of their aims is to publicise the "general upgrade of the Athenian lifestyle. "The year 2004 has the Olympics coming home to Greece, so it is very important," she says. "We want to show not only what happens in the stadiums, but also what goes on all around them. The 2004 Games come at a time when many aspects of Greece are experiencing a wave of modernisation. The Games will focus the world's attention on us, so our challenge is to display everything modern Greece has to offer. "Many people think of Greece in terms of its history and culture. The Games will allow us to present history merging with modern life. "Olympianism is embedded in our history and in our culture. It's not just the fact that Greece is the birthplace of the Games or that the modern Olympics were first staged in Athens in 1896, but that Olympic ideals are part of who we are as Greeks."

Mrs Angelopoulos-Daskalaki says the Games will leave a lasting legacy. First, there will be the massive improvements to Athens' infrastructure and the boost to commerce and tourism, which will enhance the quality of life. "Secondly, we want to give the world the chance to see and experience an Olympics on a human scale, and to experience a blend of modern technology and ancient traditions," she says. "We want to leave a legacy that shows the spirit of Olympianism as a part of everyday life. This is our challenge."

The number of sponsors of the Games has been limited, she continues, to "ensure our sponsors get the chance to support the Games in the best way possible, and that the Olympic ideals are both preserved and enhanced. "We are maintaining very strict quality guidelines in licensing products. Incidentally, the ancient Olympics were supported by sponsors - chor goi is the term in Greek, so the tradition goes back to antiquity."

The logistics of staging the Games are awesome. An anticipated 16,000 athletes and accompanying officials will participate, and the sporting events will be covered by an estimated 18,000 media representatives. The Olympic Village being built at the foot of Mount Parnitha spreads over an area of 80 hectares, and the site itself will be connected by road and rail to the capital, which is a half-hour drive away. The Village is comprises three separate zones: the International, the Residential, and the Olympic Park.

The International Zone will provide athletes and officials with facilities at the Games, including a recreation centre and shops. Accommodation, medical facilities and other services are located in the Residential Zone, and the Olympic Park will provide training facilities, including an athletics track and swimming pool. After the Games, the village will be developed to meet the growing need for accommodation in Athens, and the park will be developed for future residents. The Athens Olympic Sports Complex, world-famous for the organisation of numerous European and World championships, is the centre for the Games. Situated in Maroussi, 10km from the city centre, the main stadium has an 80,000-seat capacity.

A Yachting Centre is being built in the coastal sports and recreation park of Aghios Kosmas, 20 minutes from the Athens. The Olympic courses will be laid out in the Saronic Gulf, and the yacht marina will be able to accommodate 600 boats after the event. The rowing, canoeing and slalom centre is located close to the sea at Schinias, a popular tourist destination. And the main grandstand will be able to seat 10,000 spectators. The Olympic Equestrian Centre is at Markopoulo, about half an hour from central Athens, which will cater for 30,000 spectators. It has been proposed that the complex should become a permanent site for national and international competitive events beyond the Games.

Minister of culture Evangelos Venizelos says: "We have an obligation to implement a new kind of post-industrial, post-modern economic and social strategy. For Greece, this is not only a historical and cultural argument, but also an economic and financial one because of our tourism and manufacturing strategies." The minister emphasises the massive contribution made by Greece's 3,000-year-old history to European culture. At no time since the modern Games were revived in Athens in the late 19th century has the country had the opportunity to restate the event's true cultural values of peace and sportsmanship than in the run up to and during Athens 2004. "

We have a double obligation," explains Professor Venizelos. "We must prepare a perfect Olympics and promote the authenticity of the Games. We have the capability to organise this ideological and moral renovation of the Games around the world. This is a vital point for the International Olympic Committee and public opinion." The tourism authorities are also keen to emulate the success of the Barcelona Games, which sent visitor numbers soaring. Mayor of Athens Dimitris Avramopoulos says: "The Olympics will have a direct positive impact on our economy, culture and tourism. The city of Athens will be different, but we will fully respect its culture, its local colour and its traditions. We are creating new infrastructure, restoring old buildings and squares, and reviving commercial life. This is attracting business and encouraging investment. Given the dramatic changes in southeast Europe, Athens is a stable centre for business in the region as a whole."