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    Copyright: The following text is for personal information only. Any professional use or publication in written or electronic form is subject to an agreement with AIM, 17 rue Rebeval, F-75019 Paris, France

    SAT, 16 SEP 2000 20:17:41 GMT

    A turbulent run up to the 2004 Athens Olympics

    AIM Athens, September 16, 2000

    As of today, Greece has exactly 1,427 days before the opening of the Athens 2004 Olympic Games. But much crucial preparation time has already been lost and it remains uncertain whether Greece can meet the deadlines for the Games. While the threat of a human rights-related crisis is looming.

    The clock is ticking and time appears to be running out for the Athens organizers. Earlier this week, the president of the International Organizing Committee (IOC) Juan Antonio Samaranch said he was "worried about the timetables", calling on Athens to speed up its preparation for the Athens 2004 games. This comes five months after a warning that delays could jeopardize the quality of the Games.

    Environment, Town Planning and Public Works Minister Costas Laliotis announced in August that the five Games venues to be constructed under his ministry's supervision will be ready a few months before the Athens 2004 Games. He said that deadline for a rowing center, a sailing center, a beach volley installations, a multi-purpose venue, and a canoeing center will be ready May 2004. Construction is scheduled to begin in early 2002.

    These five venues had been shuffled around for several months between the Athens 2004 Organizing Committee (ATHOC), the ministry of public works, and the sports secretariat. But at a press conference on Athens' preparation for the 2004 Games last month, IOC Coordination Commission chairman Jacques Rogge expressed concern about the public works ministry's plan to complete the five Olympic venues by May 2004. He said that it would be best to complete at least some of the venues by 2003 and that there can be no delays if Athens is to make it in time for the Games.

    The president of the Athens 2004 Organizing Committee Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki is optimistic that the Games will be a success. She told a Sydney press conference on Tuesday that Athens is "really pushing very hard about bringing forward the timetable." She added that "Certainly there are obstacles still to overcome, a great deal of work ahead, a marathon that lies ahead," but that Greece is "committed and focused on hosting a successful games."

    But while Angelopoulos-Daskalaki in Sydney tried to reassure the world that Greece is "back on track", a scandal was brewing at home. Greek press reports that ATHOC committee members were earning outrageously high salaries stirred controversy. The media speculated that staff was earning as much as 10 million drachmas a month. Athens 2004 organizers, however, were quick to deny these allegations.

    The squabble over the salaries broke out when Culture Minister Theodoros Pangalos decided, at the last minute, to cancel his plans to travel to Sydney for the 2000 Games. Pangalos said he decided to call off the trip because he had a heavy workload in Athens. But the press had a field day. Greek media speculated that the outspoken culture minister was angered over complaints that ATHOC was overspending on salaries, even though he held tight to his initial explanation.

    When asked to comment on the accusations of extravagant salaries, the semi-official Athens News Agency (ANA) reported Pangalos as saying that the Athens 2004 organizing committee is a private organization with its own rules and code of ethics. He also disputed the fast-spreading rumor that the 2004 Games chief Angelopoulos-Daskalaki threatened to resign over the complaints of extravagant salaries.

    ATHOC tried to set the record straight in a press release on Thursday, which explained that IOC covers 70 percent of the Athens 2004 organizing budget (1.3 billion US dollars) and that this is actually less than what other Olympic Games organizing committees have spent in the past. ATHOC also said that the Greek government covers 14 percent of this budget. Athens 2004 organizers also reported that their top agents had not signed work contracts yet and that Angelopoulos-Daskalaki has not received even a single drachma. The wife of a multimillionaire, she apparently pays for all her own expenses.

    Government spokesman Dimitris Reppas yesterday told a daily press briefing that Angelopoulos-Daskalaki had the support of the majority of the Greek public and is backed by all the political parties. He stressed that she is the right person for the job and that the government was confident that she would organize a successful Athens 2004 Olympic Games. Efforts to persuade public opinion that the organization of the Athens 2004 Games is in good hands and that everything is right on track, Environment and Town Planning Minister Costas Laliotis told a press conference yesterday that he is a staunch supporter of Angelopoulos-Daskalaki.

    While the Greek press this week is engrossed by reports of inflated salaries and overspending by ATHOC, local human rights groups are pointing to yet another issue which could turn into a throbbing headache for the Athens 2004 organizers. Rights groups claim that entire Roma settlements around the capital are being evacuated by local authorities who they say are trying to rid their areas of this minority group in the run up to the games. Several Roma settlements near sites slated for Olympic venues have been reportedly cleared overnight. Rights groups say that Roma are being pushed as far away from the capital and the Olympic spotlight as possible.

    Representatives of the Greek Helsinki Monitor told a two-day United Nations conference last month that Roma are being thrown out of areas where local authorities say sports facilities for the 2004 Athens Olympic Games will be built. The issue was recently brought to the attention of IOC and Samaranch reportedly sent a letter to Greek government officials concerning this matter. In hopes of avoiding any more bad publicity over the Athens 2004 Olympic Games, government officials reportedly warned Athens municipality authorities to stop any discriminatory practices against the Roma. It remains to be seen, however, whether there will be any Roma settlement in Greater Athens come 2004.

    Kathy Tzilivakis