SPORT

There's anxiety in the air

ATHENS, JULY 24. Athenians these days are a proud but rather worried bunch of people.

They feel great satisfaction that the Olympic Games are returning to Greece. It offers recognition of some of Greece's great gifts to the world: this was the place — it was not yet a country — that gave birth to the ancient Olympics. And Athens is where the modern Olympics began in 1896.

Yet, as the opening ceremonies draw near, there is anxiety in the air. Will Athens perform well on the world stage? Will the Summer Games beginning August 13 come off as planned?

What will people think of modern Athens, so often viewed only through airplane windows by tourists bound for the Greek islands? Will the transportation system bear up under the strain of so many visitors? And how many years will it take to pay off the multi-billion dollar bill?

Hosting the Games is an honour for this city of 3.7 million. But in another month, many Athenians hope they will feel both honoured and relieved.

``A lot of people feel proud, but many of them are waiting for the results,'' said Giannis Mpaskozos, 34, who works in a tobacco shop in central Athens.

Boosting tourism

Most important for Athens' future, perhaps, is the question of how the city comes across, both to visitors and television viewers around the world.

Tourism in Greece has been declining for the past three years — and this year, despite the Olympics, may be the fourth, down as much as 10 to 15 per cent from a year ago.

Athenians know that the 1992 Games brought a lot of favourable attention to Barcelona, and they think this year's will do the same for Athens if Olympic visitors end up thinking highly of the city.

``Forming a good impression is not enough,'' Athens Mayor Dora Bakoyannis said in an interview. ``I want them to fall in love with Athens.''

Athens has much to offer visitors: shaded nooks in which to enjoy coffee and conversation, music in profusion and museums housing priceless antiquities.

Above it all looms the Acropolis, topped by the Parthenon, the enormous 2,400-year-old temple to Athena that is one of the great surviving structures of the ancient world.

But Athens is also a poorer city than most other Olympic hosts. Large parts of it are stacked with ramshackle apartment buildings topped with profusions of television antennae. Visitors expecting the grandeur of Rome will be surprised.

``Athens is not Rome,'' Bakoyannis said. ``For the very simple reason that Athens is more ancient than Rome, but without the different Renaissance buildings which exist in Rome because we were under Ottoman occupation at that time.''

She wants visitors to appreciate not only Athens' ancient structures but the modern city's food, art, vitality and ambience.

For all its charms, Athens has the misfortune of following Sydney, a city some participants considered the finest Olympic host city ever. Athenians are reluctant to predict their city will outshine the previous one.

``I don't like comparing myself to other countries and other cultures,'' said Sissi Korizi, 34, a researcher at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. ``This is who we are and what we can do. If Sydney can do it better, then good for them.''

The benefits of hosting the Games — and the costs — will linger long after the athletes have gone home. The city has installed new rail lines, built new commuter roads and completely refurbished many subway stations. These are projects many residents think should have been completed decades ago.

``It's good for Greece,'' said Mpaskozos, ``because of the improvements to the infrastructure that otherwise would never have happened.''

But the infrastructure and elaborate new venues have come with a cost, to say nothing of the projected $1.2 billion bill for security. Greece's Deputy Finance Minister, Petros Doukas, was quoted last month as saying that the Games will leave the country $44 billion in the red. Greeks may be paying off the debt for a decade, Doukas said.

Many Greeks realize they'll face a long hangover after throwing their very expensive party. ``I am very glad because the Olympics will come to the place of their birth,'' said Marinos Kolaros, 44, part owner of a news kiosk in central Athens. ``But I am worried about the expenses.''

Differing views

Not everyone is pleased about the return of the Games. Korizi does not think all the glamour and expense has anything to do with the true spirit of the Olympics. ``It's a big business,'' she said.

She opposes what advocacy groups claim are plans to clear away Athens's homeless people and to kill the city's loose dogs. It's an effort, she said, ``to create a picture of Athens which is not the true picture.''

Government officials deny there are such plans, but Amnesty International and other groups say the measures are being taken.

Korizi will not be here when the athletes arrive. ``Especially this year, I'm going to be gone all August,'' she said. But hers seems a minority view.

George Vlahos, 51, is eagerly awaiting the start of the Games. He'll be on the streets of Athens, playing his antique laterna — a sort of upright piano on a pushcart that plays traditional Greek music with the turn of a crank.

``This is where the Games started,'' he said. ``Eventually, they had to come back. The Greeks are proud. They're happy.'' — New York Times News Sevice

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