Athens 2004 Athletes and Antiquities

By Mink, Randy | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), May 30, 2004 | Go to article overview
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Athens 2004 Athletes and Antiquities

Mink, Randy, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)

Byline: Randy Mink Daily Herald Correspondent

Sprawling, polluted and chaotic, the great city of Athens, Greece, sizzles with excitement - and summer temperatures approaching 100 degrees. These days the heat is on for this monumental metropolis to meet an epic challenge: hosting the Olympic Games in their country of origin.

From Aug. 13-29, more than 10,000 athletes from 200 nations will invade the ancient city to compete in 28 sports at 35 venues. They will go for the gold in everything from baseball, boxing and badminton to weightlifting, wrestling and water polo. (The Paralympics for athletes with disabilities takes place Sept. 17- 28.)

Racing against the clock, Athens is feverishly preparing to welcome an influx of spectators and journalists that will temporarily swell the population of the crowded capital, home to more than a third of Greece's 4.3 million people.

Americans not content with watching the Games on TV are booking packages with tour operators and travel agents, aiming to snare the best hotels and tickets to the most popular Olympic events. The opening ceremony and swimming finals are practically sold out. Other hot items: closing ceremonies, women's gymnastics, diving and basketball. Aside from packages, hotel rooms are scarce.

To put its best face forward, the city is upgrading hotels, completing new roads and adding subway and light-rail lines as well as building sports arenas and Olympic Village housing for athletes. Cranes and scaffolding clutter the skyline. Millions of trees and shrubs are being planted. Security arrangements will be unprecedented.

Greece, hailed as the cradle of democracy and Western thought, also is the birthplace of the Olympics. The first recorded competitions between warring city-states were held in 776 B.C. at Olympia, now an intriguing archaeological site on the Peloponnese peninsula. Athens presided over the first modern Olympics in 1896 and was outbid by Atlanta for the 100th anniversary Games in 1996.

As a tourist magnet and port of call on Mediterranean cruises, Athens dazzles visitors with its zest for life and relics of the past. A seemingly endless jumble of white concrete, the Greek capital does reveal pockets of beauty and inspiration. Most of the historical monuments, happily for the visitor, are clustered near the city center. Still, it's hard to get a grip on Athens, even with a good guidebook in hand.

Settlement in Athens began 5,000 years ago at the foot of the Acropolis, a hill that commands views of all approaches from the sea. Today, this craggy limestone plateau rising abruptly out of the plain of Attica is the focal point of tourism and a perpetual reminder of the glory of the first Greek city-state. Its noble ruins date from the fifth century B.C., when the democratic leader Pericles presided over Athens' Golden Age, a flourishing of the arts, literature and philosophy that has influenced Western civilization ever since. (Is your World History class all coming back to you now?)

Even with hordes of sightseers cluttering the Acropolis, one still feels a sense of wonder. The Parthenon, its showplace, is one of the world's most famous buildings and the very symbol of Athens and ancient Greece. A marble masterpiece of unequalled harmony, the Parthenon, with its honey-colored Doric columns and classical pediments, was built as a sanctuary for a statue of Athena, goddess of wisdom and patron of the city.

Sculptures from 56 panels of its internal frieze were acquired in 1801 by Lord Elgin from occupying Turkish authorities and carted off to London. Known as the Elgin Marbles, the treasures remain, despite protests from the Greek government, in the British Museum.

The other two temples on the Acropolis (meaning "high point of the city") are the small, cliffside Temple of Athena Nike and the much-photographed Erechtheion, its porch roof supported by caryatids, or statues of classically draped maidens.

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