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And the unexpected winner is...Athens

Posted: Monday August 30, 2004 10:09PM; Updated: Monday August 30, 2004 10:09PM
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ATHENS, Aug 30 (Reuters) -- The greatest race of the Olympics produced the most unlikely winner.

In the organisational marathon preceding the Games, Athens spent seven long years chasing time, an implacable and shadowy opponent glimpsed, more often than not, disappearing over the horizon.

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But, with the countdown ticking fast as the Games approached, Athens came from nowhere to reach the finish line first, earning itself the right to celebrate the staging of an improbably successful Olympics.

Olympic chiefs at their Swiss base in Lausanne had fretted. The world's media had doubted.

But, as if by magic, it really was all right on the night.

More than all right, in fact.

Fears of unfinished stadiums, traffic chaos, competitors collapsing in droves because of the searing summer heat, serious security breaches, all evaporated as Athens put on a show to be proud of.

History was always on the Greeks' side, even if time was not.

Birthplace of both the Ancient and Modern Games, Greece had evocative monuments in abundance and, quite rightly, milked them mercilessly to provide the perfect backdrop to the Games, offering global viewers a sumptuous televisual feast.

So there was the shot put in Ancient Olympia, archery and marathon finishes in the Panathinaiko stadium used for the first Modern Games in 1896, not to mention the marathon start from the town of Marathon where the run has its origins.

Add in the cycle road races around the Acropolis and the triathlon on the picturesque coastline of Vouliagmeni and Athens could hardly have presented a more appealing image.

The backdrop would have counted for little, however, if the Greeks had not got venues and transport infrastructure in place in time.

WASTED YEARS

After more or less wasting the first three years since being awarded the Games in 1997, Athens found itself persistently harangued by the International Olympic Committee about its sluggish preparations, with suggestions the Olympics might even be withdrawn if things did not improve.

Before the Games started the general expectation was that Athens would endure comparisons with Atlanta, the 1996 hosts whose transport and technical woes turned into nightmares, leaving it with the reputation as the worst Games in recent times.

That Athens should now be inviting comparison with Barcelona 1992 and Sydney 2000, the two most superb and atmospheric Olympics of the past 40 years, is an amazing turnaround.

The Greeks had always insisted they would get there in the end and that their get-things-done-at-the-last-minute mentality should not be doubted.

In the image of their women's 400 metres hurdler Fani Halkia, who came from nowhere to win the gold medal by a street, they did just that, building at an ever more frenzied pace in the final months, weeks and even days.

It was a real last-gasp effort -- but it worked.

State-of-the-art venues, enthusiastic crowds -- at least when Greeks were performing -- and perfect weather made it a Games to relish.

The Greeks have enjoyed a gastronomic feast and they should bask in satisfaction for a while.

But after the meal comes the bill and the huge and unexpected security costs have pushed the total to more than 12 billion dollars, more than twice the original target.

For a small nation of 10 million people, that is a huge burden and one which will take years to pay.

It would be sad if, after staging such a successful Games, Athens were to be remembered as another Montreal, where the 1976 Olympics left debts which are still making an economic impact.

Copyright 2004 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.

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