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Next Saturday Olympic Games fever will begin to build up as the symbolic torch travels through London on its worldwide journey from sacred Olympia to Athens via all the cities that have hosted the modern games since their inception by Baron Pierre de Courbertin in 1896. A 30-mile route will take the flame past some of London”s most historic buildings including The Tower of London, St Paul”s Cathedral, the London Eye and Trafalgar Square, a marvellous advert not only for the city but also for the 2012 games. A spectacular celebration in central London will complete the day.
If for 2096 Athens is today awarded the Olympic Games in recognition of the 200th anniversary of the first games of the modern era (assuming that the games are still running ” no reason why not with the original going on for over 1,000 years), it might be that the city will be finally organised. As for 2004, forget it!
From a technical point of view the games will be ready for the opening ceremony in just over 50 days time. On a sporting level the venues will be complete and the princes of the Olympic movement will be able to move from their luxury hotels to the competition sites without any problems. The real difficulty is that Athens is a huge building site, some facilities tantalisingly nearly ready, and some abandoned for at least another year until completion. Even the (long term) rejuvenation of the Acropolis has been put on hold, the huge cranes left on site until ”next year” or whatever is the Greek equivalent. But the actual stadiums are more or less finished. The problems are the infrastructure. The one railway line to the main stadium is complete but looks woefully inadequate in what it offers, a Greek version of the Docklands Light Railway with just four platforms (bottom left of the picture above covering the main Olympic complex) at its destination. Wembley for all its inadequacies has at least three stations serving it (and room for a fourth). The train from Athens fine new international airport is still to be commissioned and the city”s advanced tram system awaits a start-up date. The plan is to seal off the centre of Athens to private cars for the duration of the games and an exodus of the good citizens is being encouraged. And it will be very hot.
What is really sad is that there was really no need for this serious situation to develop. There are two sets of people responsible for the Games. The Olympic Committee who have been doing their job for years and in spite of the extravagances are very capable of putting on an excellent event. Politics, something the Greeks invented together with democracy, have got in the way of remodelling the city infrastructure. As an example of what Athens and the Athenians can do is the landmark Athens Hilton. First opened 40 years ago, it has been almost totally rebuilt closing in November 2001 re-opening on time and on budget in February 2003. It looks new, feels new and in many ways is totally new. As the headquarters of the Olympic Committee it will be a very comfortable centrally located base with some of the best sound proofing experienced in an inner city hotel. The open-air swimming pool (it has an indoor version as well) was worthy of a recent visitor, Los Angles multi-gold medallist Mark Spitz. If a drink is needed or a spectacular meal, the rooftop Galaxy Bar (from where our picture is taken) seems to be the place to eat in Athens, with its superb views over the city, the Acropolis spectacularly lit up at night.
The true home of the games is at Olympia, 150 miles, four hours by road via Corinth from Athens, bordering the Ionion Sea and close to the tiny port of Katakolon, a popular cruise liner haven. The first historical reference to the Olympics can be found in 776 BC, when a treaty between the kings of Elis and Sparta called for a truce during the games of Olympia. Traditionally held every four years the games were finally banned by the Roman Emperor Theodosius in 393 AD by which time the original athletic type events had been joined by the latest in modern technology, chariot racing. Excavations of what is now a very large site began in 1875 and are considered one of archaeology”s great achievements. The stadium, with its grassy banks, hold about 15,000 and will be the venue of both the men”s and women”s shot putt a somewhat disputed happening as women were banned from the original games as competitors and as spectators. Amongst the massive spectacular ruins of temples and gymnasiums is the site where the Olympic flame was lit, even today for the modern games.
Athens of course means the Acropolis, the ancient home of the gods and crowned by the Parthenon. Don”t be put of by the steep climb, it”s well worth the struggle and whilst Athens itself can be unbearably hot high on the mount a cool wind keeps temperatures down to a reasonable level. From the top look below to see the theatre of Herod Atticus built by the Romans in 161 AD and still used today for classical concerts. Further down is the Theatre of Dionysious the first stone theatre and home to Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides and Aristophanes. It was rebuilt around 342 BC by Lykourgos and then enlarged by the Romans to be used for gladiator fights and now a venue for pop amongst other stage glitter. Sadly with the main archaeological museum in the classical Agora area on the slopes closed the only way to see some of the magnificent sculptures rescued over the years is to visit the Acropolis museum itself situated close by the top of the hill.
There is a well-organised long-term plan to integrate all the centres of antiquity that personifies Athens joining the various sites with a pedestrian complex. In truth the Olympics have probably got in the way of this ambitious and practical scheme slowing down its development. It is one for the future. E12 will buy you six tickets to visit the main archaeological sites, which you can use over a three-day period. It is very good value.
Athens has come a long way over the last few years, the new Metro working very well even if it goes nowhere near the main Olympic sites. Bustling Ermou Street in the heart of the city has been pedestrianised giving easy access from Syntagma Square and the Parliament building, to Monastiraki the cosmopolitan market and open air dining area. If you don”t feel you have the strength to climb the Acropolis the alternative is Mount Lycabettus, 1100 feet, ten minutes walk from Syntagma Square and served by a steep funicular. You can eat near the top also.
Don”t be put off by the potential chaos at Athens and of rumours, according to the local newspapers, that it is way over budget. For all its faults the Games look set for being a great success. There seems to be plenty of space on flights from UK airports to Athens at reasonable prices, and to date the organising committee has only sold 1.8m of the 5.5m seats available at the various venues. Accommodation is supposed to be booked for a minimum of six days but as the opening date gets nearer rank will be broken. You can bed and breakfast, hire a flat or villa and there is a vast range of hotels available. However make sure that where you are staying is within an easy walk of the train system or public transport. Don”t bother with Olympic merchandise at this stage. The prices of the memorabilia make England football shirts look really cheap. Instead of Athens being festooned with the colour and the glory of the Olympics the umbrellas, T-shirts and scarves are staying in the shops. Things might yet change.
Athens is one of the great metropolises of the world and worth a visit regardless of the Olympics. It has quickly become a two language city (Greek and English), the Euro is the currently and the taxis are cheap and plentiful although not that easy to find empty. Add it to your list of places to go to and watch the games on TV!