Greece Hits the Wall

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For Athens, the decathlon is more than a 10-event competition. It's the Greek capital's race to resolve 10 severe snags to staging the 2004 Olympic Games. "Three years of dillydallying is enough," huffs one International Olympic Committee vice chairman. "No more delays or excuses. Athens has to put its mess in order."

The warning, topped by the I.O.C.'s branding of Athens as "the worst organizational crisis in 20 years," has seen Prime Minister Costas Simitis, who is credited with putting the country's faltering finances in order, step in to try to do the same with the Olympics. Simitis has begun refereeing seven ministers squabbling over multibillion dollar planning works. Heeding I.O.C. advice, he also drafted Gianna Angelopoulos- Daskalaki, who led Athens' winning bid in 1997. Appointed to head the troubled Athens Organizing Committee (ATHOC), Angelopoulos, a 44-year-old lawyer, took the job on condition that she be given a free hand in forcing through reforms.

Last week's shake-up of ATHOC bore her stamp. It also cost the state an estimated $1 million to pay off Costas Bakouris, ATHOC's sacked manager. His replacement, Petros Sinadinos, is also from the bid team.

Some of the I.O.C.'s mix of businessmen, Olympians, retired politicians and sundry aristocrats are encouraged. Most, including Dr. Jacques Rogge, chairman of the I.O.C.'s Coordination Commission, remain cautious. "The proof is in the eating," says the Belgian-born former world yachting champion.

For all the revamping, Athens will have to hurry to meet the I.O.C.'s deadlines by Aug. 23. "Sometimes I don't think the Greeks realize the urgency that is demanded on key matters," says Rogge. "You can't wing the Olympics." Much of the squeeze comes from the international sponsors who have already banked on Greece's winning marketing theme: the Olympic homecoming. Local sponsors, however, have yet to pledge a cent.

At the heart of Athens' Olympic woes is bureaucracy, with a hint of skulduggery. Says Bakouris, "It took me 18 months to hire a mere typist. I had no authority to make decisions without a zillion state approvals and rivalries." A bill designed to cut through such red tape was pushed through Parliament on June 22. It gives organizers flexibility in spending, licensing and tendering. But this rush to make up for lost time has kindled fears of corruption and cronyism in the awarding of fat construction contracts. "Transparency," says the Athens daily Avgi, "may be a luxury which Athens' cramming cannot afford."

Despite the shake-up, Anita DeFrantz, an I.O.C. vice president and U.S. Olympian, remains worried about the athletes' accommodation. The 124-hectare site for the Olympic Village is still no more than pasture for goats, rabbits and sheep.

After Atlanta's over-commercialization, the I.O.C. was seduced by the Athens mantras of "values over value," and "ideals over deals." Now, however, it is clinging to the more prosaic "better late than never." And if Athens doesn't meet its August deadlines? Says Canada's Richard Pound, the I.O.C. vice president: "Then we will have to sit back and take a new decision fast."