Byline: Andrew Borowiec, THE WASHINGTON TIMES
NICOSIA, Cyprus - This is "the race against the clock," a time of trial and of considerable torment for Hellenes from Attica in the Greek heartland to their eastern Mediterranean bastion on Cyprus.
Delays and other ups and downs in the preparations for the 2004 Athens Olympics have added to the challenges and doubts about the future of the games.
At stake are the pride of an ancient nation and an investment of more than $5 billion, which has transformed parts of Athens and its vicinity into hives of construction activity and chaos.
A series of mishaps during the August trial runs, nagging questions in the international press about frequent and continuing organizational problems and the security situation have created tensions, some of them serious.
Criticism of security arrangements voiced recently in the United States and Britain caused a sharp rebuke from the Greek authorities. There were hints that foreign interests were trying to undermine confidence in Greece's ability to handle the games.
Claims regarding organizational difficulties and security problems "have no basis in reality," said government spokesman Christos Protoppapas, adding "there are interest groups that think they can pressure us. Of course, we ignore them. We are moving forward, and will host the safest games ever."
The concentration of athletes, the phalanxes of backup personnel and the expected presence of some 4 million spectators expected for the 17-day Olympic Games next August are likely to paralyze Athens and strain the country's resources beyond anything experienced before.
The 2004 Olympiad is the first such gathering since the devastating terrorist raids on the United States on September 11, 2001. Athens is only a short flight from the Middle East. The permanently nagging question is whether the Greeks can prevent the games from becoming a disaster.
Greek officials in charge of the games consider them as a major "transforming event, the pivot and catalyst for a new national and international image, modernity and prosperity."
Foreign participants are worried about security in a country that, until a few years ago, was considered by the United States to be "one of Europe's weakest links" in the struggle against terrorism.
Things have improved since, but not to everyone's satisfaction. Periodically, foreign critics voice doubts about Greek assurances of success.
To Gianna Angelopoulo-Daskalaki, head of the Athens Organizing Committee (Athos), "Everything is on track. We know exactly where we are. This country has a unique chance to be reintroduced to the rest of the world."
Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), said: "Athens will be ready for the games, even if at the last minute."
And, commenting on security, he added: "I believe that everything humanly possible has been done on this issue, but no one can provide 100 percent guarantees concerning the security issue for any occasion."
Although the recent statements have been more positive than those of Mr. Rogge's predecessor - Juan Antonio Samaranch - who described the preparations in 2001 "the worst organizational crisis" of his 20-year tenure, some Greek newspapers continue to warn about a possible national disaster.
The influential Athens Kathimerini daily recently opined: The organizers "must quickly tackle all issues that threaten to torpedo next year's games, resulting in this country's humiliation."
Said Denis Oswald, chairman of the IOC's Olympic Coordination Commission: "Our assessment is certainly more positive than last spring. But we cannot tolerate any slippages."
The mixture of optimism and caution has added to the national trauma in a country where the games originated in 776 B.C. and where they were revived in modern times in 1896. …