The power failure that crippled much of Greece for four hours last Monday is only the latest indication that the Athens Olympics may be almost as challenging for visitors as it is for athletes. But there are other, subtler omens as well. Take the new 8,000-seat boxing venue in the Athens neighborhood of Peristeri. With a slick blue-and-red ring capped by a colossal TV screen and a snazzy digital scoreboard, it's a dazzling place to watch a fight. But step outside the main hall and the polished illusion falls apart: there are few signs telling people how to get where they're going, a lack of parking spaces and mismatched carpets. Across town, the historic marathon course will also make for stirring TV, with 25 camera crews and two helicopters covering the 42-km race. The only thing missing along several portions of the route will be spectators, because there's no place to stand on the roadside. Last month, organizers said there would be room for just 1,000 spectators at the start of the Athens Games' signature event and tens of thousands at the finish line. And if you want to watch along the course itself, you'll have to find your own space. This isn't just a matter of construction delays. One facility, for example, was completed well ahead of schedule: the International Broadcasting Center where NBC, the American television network that spent $793 million to secure the Games' U.S. rights, and the other TV networks will coordinate their coverage.
Welcome to the made-for-TV Games. An emphasis on televised spectacle at the expense of visitors is not exactly new it was no accident that in 2000, Sydney's opening ceremony of 7,000 performers, Aboriginal rockers and fireworks artists from five continents became the most watched TV program in Aussie history but the Athens Games are stressing the video image as never before. With less than a month before the Games begin, the Athens heat and terrorism jitters have conspired to leave ticket sales well behind schedule. Just 2 million have been sold so far out of a total of 5.3 million; that's only 34%. By contrast, at the same stage in the run-up to the Sydney Games in 2000, organizers had sold 50% of their total. Hotel bookings are also down, and earlier this month, Athens workers demanding pay increases threatened mass strikes and walk-outs. On the other hand, TV viewership is looking positively steroidal. Organizers predict a staggering 4 billion viewers worldwide, up from 3.7 billion in 2000. Four thousand TV crew members and 1,000 cameras will produce an unprecedented 3,900 hours of live coverage for audiences from Birmingham to Bangkok. NBC alone says it expects to air three times more coverage than in Sydney.