Sports: Olympian Obstacles; This Year the Summer Games Return to Greece. Will Its New Government Be Ready?

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Byline: Mark Starr and Michael Meyer, With Toula Vlahou in Athens

Next week a torch shall be passed. It will be lit on the hallowed grounds of Olympia, site of the ancient Olympics 3,000 years ago, and then be run to the stadium in Athens where, in 1896, the modern Games were born. From there it begins an around-the-world marathon--78,000 kilometers across six continents--before returning to Athens in August for opening ceremonies at the newly refurbished Olympic Stadium.

Another torch was passed in Athens last week, as well. Greece's ruling Socialist Party, in power for 20 of the past 23 years, was trounced in elections that brought the ascendance of yet another European conservative party. Ironically, the new prime minister, Costas Karamanlis, had to do relatively little to win. His New Democracy party almost coasted to victory, thanks to high joblessness, allegations of corruption and the apathy generated by a ruling party that had long overstayed its welcome.

The big question is what the change of government means not just for Greece and its foreign relations, but for the Olympics. Karamanlis's party is quite different from the right-wingers of yore, when Greece was run by generals and fanatic nationalists. As for Karamanlis himself, at 47 a relatively untested politician with a reputed gift for moderation and conciliation, he lost no time in establishing his priorities. Number one is the Olympics, he said, promptly appointing himself minister of Culture, with direct responsibility for the Games. "The entire image of modern Greece will be judged" by how it handles the Games, he declared.

If so, that judgment could be harsh. With five months to go, preparations lag far behind schedule. Most outsiders believe Athens is flirting with disaster. Some competition sites are now scheduled for completion less than two months before the Games begin. The Olympic Stadium and the swimming pool have no roofs yet; Athens' main Constitution Square is an excavation site. Critical infrastructure remains unfinished, including rail links where tracks haven't yet been laid, let alone the trains and trams tested. Work was even halted on the marathon route, which replicates Phillipides' heroic run from Marathon in 490 B.C., pushing its scheduled completion back by three months. One local newspaper summed up the dubious progress with a cartoon showing a worker running a hose into an empty pool as an Olympic diver is poised to plunge.

Rather than further muddle a bad situation, the change of government may help. "It's a blessing in disguise," says Nicholas Rizopoulos at Adelphi University in New York. "The mayor of Athens, the head of the Greek Olympic Committee and the P.M. are now all from the same party. They can get together to twist arms and bring off a half-successful Olympics"--not least, he adds, by putting a stop to the cronyism and alleged under-the-table financial dealings that delayed projects under the Socialists.

Olympic organizers are trying to put the best gloss on their troubles. Over platters of sardines, calamari and silver snapper at an Athens seaside restaurant, IOC vice president Kevan Gosper could only urge reporters, "Don't just see how much work there is to be done. Remember how much has already been done." Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, president of Athens 2004, acknowledged concerns but pledged, "We haven't come this far to let challenges like these stop us now."

Not all those "challenges" are entirely Greece's fault. A burgeoning security plan--with costs estimated to approach $1 billion, three times that of Sydney four years ago--insisted upon chiefly by the United States has delayed work. …