Athens readying for safe, accessible Olympics

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LONDON -- Athens has made significant progress in ensuring that it hosts a secure, efficient and accessible Summer Olympic Games in 2004, said Greek tourism officials speaking at the World Travel Market and other industry events here.

"Our organizing committee is working hard to prepare for the 2004 games, [and] we are learning to work under strict deadlines in a disciplined way," said Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, president of organizer Athens 2004, at a London press event.

Still, the numbers are daunting for Greece, the European Union's poorest member: Some 10,500 athletes from 200 countries will compete in 28 sports at 36 venues around Athens from Aug. 13 to 19, 2004; the Paralympic Games for disabled athletes will run shortly thereafter, from Sept. 17 to 28.

An estimated 150,000 spectators, along with 20,000 journalists, are expected.

Security remains paramount among concerns about managing the huge crowds, which temporarily will swell Athens' population by almost 25%.

Some worry the return of the Olympics to Athens -- the games were first held in Greece in 776 B.C. and were revived there in 1896 -- might prove a tempting target for terrorists.

One Greek official said he hopes the current world climate will have calmed by the time opening ceremonies kick off.

"I hope that in that moment, everything about terrorism will have been solved; we still have two years until the Olympics," said Yannis Patellis, president of the Greek National Tourism Organization, citing antiterrorism campaigns by the U.S. and the United Nations.

"Terrorism is an international question, not just a question for Athens," he added, claiming the Greek capital is considered one of Europe's safest cities.

That said, the country isn't taking any chances.

The government is devoting more than $600 million to security planning and infrastructure; is training some 45,000 police, armed forces and other security personnel to patrol the games; and has signed 37 security cooperation and aid agreements with 22 nations.

"All Olympic Games have security programs; Salt Lake City [in 2002] is a good example, as it took place in the middle of a terrorist alert," said Pantellis. "So, of course, there will be a plan. But Greece is a peaceful country."

Some concerns also have been raised about the availability of accommodations for the number of foreign visitors expected to descend on Athens for the games.

But Angelopoulos-Daskalaki said Athens 2004 has the hotel and housing situation well in hand.

Now that athlete housing has been completed, she said, every five-star hotel in the city is undergoing renovation; housing for foreign press is under construction; and 11 luxury cruise ships are slated to moor at the port of Piraeus, adding 6,640 accommodations for up to 13,280 visitors.

Among participating ships will be Cunard Line's new Queen Mary 2, set to debut in January; Royal Olympic's Olympia Voyager, Olympia Explorer and Olympia Countess; Holland America Line's Rotterdam and the Oosterdam, which is under construction; and Royal Caribbean's Splendour of the Seas, which will host national Olympic committee delegates.

"Of course, everything is organized," said Pantellis. "The accommodations capacity has been enlarged, and we are ready for everybody."

Greece also has undertaken a massive sports and infrastructure construction effort.

Twenty-four of the eventual 36 Olympic venues have been built; a new airport, subway and light-rail system has been constructed; and 130 miles of new or upgraded roadway will be paved in time for the summer games.

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