This summer brothel workers in Athens banded together to protest the sudden tightening of a previously ignored law that bans them from operating near schools, churches and civic centers—thus distancing them from next year's Olympic venues. Keen to tap the revenue that the Games-goers will bring, the unhappy hookers arranged rallies, marched through the red-light district and even took legal action with the Council of State.
If only the rest of the city were so organized. Stop us if you heard this story about Barcelona and other host cities of the past, but with less than a year before the Aug. 13 opening ceremonies, Athens has some big, fat Olympic problems. Many venues are incomplete and behind schedule, and the city's hotel beds are in danger of being overbooked.
Truth be told, the delays are understandable. Athens faces the burden of upgrading its long-neglected infrastructure to accommodate the nearly two million additional people expected over the 17 days of competition. Besides constructing arenas, the city has had to create roads, finish a new international airport and revamp its subway system. "We are not organizing for two weeks next year," Greece's culture minister, Evangelos Venizelos, said last month. "We are organizing the future of the country for the next few decades."
Meanwhile, as workers stir up the soil, they keep encountering the past. All major construction in Athens must be okayed by archaeologists. Where else but Greece do guys with jackhammers have to leave off after unearthing a 2,500-year-old temple of Aphrodite—as happened during preparation of a site for equestrian events in the town of Markopoulo. Elsewhere, the discovery of stone homes built 4,500 years ago delayed construction at a rowing and sailing venue while the dwellings were carefully moved.
Add to that more modern issues, such as what to do with the city's 60,000 stray dogs (one recently bit a Ukrainian archery coach who was jogging in a park next to the competition venue) and figuring out a way to feed all the visitors without setting off an international incident (the German rowers pulled out of last month's test event after several team members got salmonella from their hotel food). In mid-August, Greek prime minister Costas Simitis felt compelled to say, "We do not have the illusions that everything is perfect."
What's most worrisome is the question of security. During a drill last month, authorities failed to detect explosives brought into a test event, heightening concern that the nearly 50,000-person Olympic security force may be no match for the country's porous borders. "Security for Salt Lake City was child's play compared to Athens," says Alex Gilady, the IOC member from Israel. "Here you have [Greek] islands near the Middle East."
One can only hope potential troublemakers fare no better than the first wave of visiting athletes. At last month's World Junior Rowing Championships in Schinias, an Olympic coastal site 20 miles from Athens that's prone to heavy gusts and choppy seas, U.S. and British vessels took on too much water and sank. Other test events—in canoe slalom, judo, fencing and modern pentathlon—were moved or postponed because of problems at their facilities. No wonder Denis Oswald, the IOC's chief inspector for the Games, implored Greeks to work "miracles" to get ready in time.
The Games will undoubtedly be rich in history (marathoners, for example, will retrace Pheidippides's fatal run from Marathon to Athens in 490 B.C.), and optimists in the IOC note that the 1992 Barcelona Olympics were plagued by construction and security woes a year out but came off superbly. If the city's namesake, Athena, isn't inspiration enough—she is the goddess of wisdom and crafts—Olympic organizers can turn for hope to Athens's ladies of the evening. Last week, after some 150 licensed prostitutes led a downtown vigil, government officials announced they would relax the laws designed to keep the women away from Olympic venues. Whatever else happens in Athens next summer, the world will get a warm welcome.