But this was Athens, not Baghdad, and it was the first overt signal that these next two weeks may really be about sport, not war. The raucous scene on Omonia Square in downtown Athens turned out to be simply a bunch of Iraqi soccer fans celebrating the surprise victory of their team in a preliminary round of the Olympic Games. They chanted for a while, joyous smiles disarming any who felt threatened, and after a few minutes, peacefully rambled off down a side street.
Itís already been a rollercoaster week for the Greeks, and the Opening Ceremony isnít even until tonight. Everything from the athletic facilities to ticket sales has suffered from the typical Greek last-minute rush but both are catching up quickly. Two executives from Greek TV were fired after the network went dark for 25 minutes during the Greek soccer teamís first match. Then, the final blow came yesterday, when the two top Greek track stars (including the sprinter who was also expected to be the torch lighter at the Opening ceremonies) missed their doping tests.
Then there is security. There are more cops on the street, more metal detectors in use, more plainclothes, sunglass-wearing men ambling around, and even those surveillance blimps overhead. The staff check accreditations more seriously than at past Summer Games. This will keep the lower-level terrorist attacks from happening, but security experts know dedicated groups like al-Qaeda can strike at any time.
Compared to the sports-obsessed Australia, there is a sense that the nation, or at least the capital, hasnít quite embraced the Games. Lots of Athenians, as is usual, have left the city for August vacation though, remarkably, traffic remains as bad as ever. There donít seem to be as many banners and Olympic paraphernalia. For the most part, Athens has given a collective shoulder shrug to the whole extravaganza.
That doesnít mean the Games will be a bust. The facilities themselves are state of the art, these Games have more countries and more athletes than any other, and Athens is primed for some excellent matchups including, of course, the U.S. versus the Aussies in the pool. The Greeks are just keeping it all in perspective, which, given the doping scandals, the ongoing corruption (A Bulgarian official was disinvited after a TV new program appeared to show him talking of bribes) and heat, might be just what the Olympics needs.