RENT A CAR
To the people of Greece: We apologize
26 August 2004
ATHENS - The Greeks could sue for defamation of character. They could demand an apology from the world. Instead they just shrug and order another frappe.
Their Olympics are going beautifully. Just like they expected. After all, they invented this business.
For years, we heard how miserable these Olympics would be, how dangerous, how choked with traffic, how polluted, how unfinished. After just a couple of days, some observers turned in an instant thumbs-down on the Games. No atmosphere. No crowds. The horror – gymnastics wasn't even sold out!
Such rips are ridiculous. For one thing, you can't judge the Olympics until they start. And, in reality, the Athens Games didn't start until Friday, when track and field got under way.
Olympic atmosphere comes from 160,000 people streaming into the park every day. And that can only happen when track starts. Until then, the Olympic park seems deserted even with 30,000 people inside it.
Saturday night, the upper bowl of Olympic Stadium was filled with rippling blue and white Greek flags and fans cheering for runners and discus throwers. The roar of the crowd rose into the Athens night. You couldn't convince anyone there that these Games have no atmosphere.
So far these Games get a huge thumbs-up from this corner. And not just because I set my personal bar so low - my goal was to come home alive. I swore I wouldn't whine about slow buses or hot weather.
I'm still alive and feeling sheepish about all my worries. The heightened security is evident but not oppressive. The fear-mongering has dissolved into a happy Olympic atmosphere where Canadian fans wander around in togas and olive wreaths drinking Mythos beer. The Games aren't over, but so far, Athens feels very safe.
And there hasn't been much to whine about. The buses run on time. The taxis are cheap. The phones work. Even the weather has cooperated, with temperature mostly in the 90s during the days, but not the 100-plus heat that had been advertised.
Are they as great as the Sydney Summer Olympics, which drew rave reviews? So far, they're not far behind (and gymnastics wasn't sold out there either – not everyone loves the little pixies as much as Americans).
The scene at Darling Harbor was terrific - but the crowded cafes of the Plaka, in the shadow of the Acropolis, are almost as lively.
Are these Games as great as Barcelona, which I didn't attend but many veteran Olympic writers say is their favorite? They're not far behind – and they're beating Barcelona in ticket sales.
And how do they compare to Atlanta? There is no comparison. The United States hosted the worst Summer Olympics of the modern mega-Games era.
Everything people feared would happen here actually did happen in Atlanta: There was a bombing, the buses didn't run on time, the computer system didn't function, the crowds were suffocating and the weather was oppressive. Greece, the smallest country to host an Olympics in 52 years and one of the poorest countries in the European Union, is outperforming the world's super power.
On Saturday, Athens was abuzz. The efficient new metro system was packed with fans heading to every venue. Inside the Olympic park every event except trampoline was sold out (and you're not going to hold it against the Athenians if they don't support trampoline, are you?).
On Friday, 244,144 fans went to 47 events. Ticket sales have reached 3.2 million – close to the target of 3.4 million – and they're not done yet. The fact that most Athenians were on vacation until last week is part of the Games' new energy.
Not only were the Greeks underestimated, their capital city has been mistreated. For those of us who haven't been here before, Athens is a surprising delight.
Yes, it's crowded and poorly laid out. But it has dazzling historic sites around almost every corner, restaurants and bars that stay open until almost dawn, and wonderful, gracious hosts.
It also has a terrific coastline along the Saronic Gulf. A new tram runs along the water, and Saturday it carried both Olympic spectators and sunbathers. The beaches were packed and Athenians bobbed in the sparkling water.
The first eight days have been a success. I told my cabdriver how impressed I was.
"Of course," he said and shrugged. What did you expect from the folks who came up with idea in the first place?
By Ann Killion, San Jose Mercury News