Eighteen years ago, a girl named Kalliopi Ouzouni came here on a school trip. There was the usual footrace; she finished third. "I felt wonderful," she says, "but I never imagined I would be a member of the Olympic team." Now the 31-year-old Ouzouni will be one of two Greek women competing in the shot put. "When I understood that the competition could happen in this special place," she says, "it gave me more energy. It made me work harder."
Far from the mess and carping of Athens, Olympia does feel special. More than a third of the local population of 1,800 signed up to help out at the shot put event, and there's no missing the town's unabashed pride.
But what happens if some shot-putter comes up dirty? What if the real overwhelms the ideal? Athens, Olympia and Greece will survive that, too, I realize when I wander out of the stadium and see the line of 16 pedestals. The Greeks have known longer than anyone else that nothing is pure, nothing is new. Here on these pedestals, 16 statues of Zeus once stood, paid for by the fines imposed on cheating athletes, whose names were inscribed as a warning to all who pass.
That's when I know. The 2004 Olympics could be nowhere else but in Greece. No other place better captures the mood of the moment; no other place better represents our low expectations, our fear of the unknown, our hope that, somehow, everything will turn out right. There has never been a civic dash quite like Athens's frantic race to the finish. We're all driving to Olympia now—builders and athletes, cheaters and cheated, hacks and riders alike—all swearing and braking for nothing. Climb in, cross your fingers. I promise: You'll never feel more alive.