UNFINISHED BUSINESS; Greeks Invented the Marathon, but with 150 Days to Go They Face an Olympic Sprint

Article excerpt

Byline: NEIL WILSON

CLOSE to midnight and the lights still blaze at the Olympic Stadium. Men are at work. Desperate men, probably, because the Greeks, who invented the marathon, have turned the homecoming of the Games into a desperate sprint.

And, currently, there is no home to go to. No, you cannot look inside the stadium, you need a licence from Athens 2004, says the security guard. But in daylight, from above and beyond, i t appears a bare bowl of concrete.

Either side stand gigantic scaffold towers holding massive tubes the length of the stadium which will be moved into place over the stadium bowl to support the two 6,500-ton halves of a steel and glass ornamental canopy.

The canopy was promised for early April, but it is still under assembly.

Without it there is nothing on which to hang the lighting essential to the opening ceremony on August 13. Only when that is safely fixed will installation of 80,000 seats, eight-lane track and two scoreboards proceed.

And today, there are just 150 days to go. Alongside the stadium is the Aquatic Centre which the Greeks promised would have a roof.

Spectators and swimmers will fry in the 95-degree August sun without it and television cameras will be blinded by the glare of sun off water. But there is no roof, and it was only this month that tenders were invited to build one after the previous contractor quit.

Around the athletic and aquatic centres awaits [pounds sterling]48million of beautification, trees, lakes, monuments and marble footpaths, none of which can start until the dumper trucks and cranes depart.

To the north, beyond the small suburban town of Aghia Paraskevi, is the road to Marathon down which the British hope Paula Radcliffe will be first to enter Athens on August 21. It is inadequately paved and too narrow for comfort or safety. The company contracted to widen its 10 miles did not pay their workers and, after a strike, finally quit.

It was symptomatic of the labour disputes, inclement weather and bureaucracy that have throttled Greek aspirations since they were awarded the Games in 1997.

So are the Olympics going to start in Athens on Friday, August 13? Of course. Olympics always start on the appointed day.

The question troubling the International Olympic Committee is whether Athens will be ready to start. That is a very different question.

Jacques Rogge, IOC president, made clear earlier this month that the Greeks should focus on basics. He said: 'We want good conditions for the athletes, smooth transportation, well-run venues with good officials and volunteers and good media facilities. …