On a sweltering morning in mid-July, several hundred Athenians gathered in the hope of defeating an old stereotype. The Athens tram--shut down in 1960 by a government that thought mass transit was obsolete--was being relaunched to help reduce gridlock at the 2004 Summer Olympics. With the first tram of the new era due to arrive at Syntagma Square at 10 a.m., people spontaneously assembled on the platform to celebrate. "Greeks love a party," explained Maikl Tzamaloukas, 78, before launching into a popular song from his youth--"Go, go/Get the last train!"--and dancing away down the platform.
By 10:45, Tzamaloukas had stopped dancing. The absence of the tram had turned into a taunt. "We are very sensitive at the moment," said Evangelos Stathatos, a teacher. "It's this Olympics business." Stathatos was speaking not of the record $7.2 billion that Greece is pouring into the Games nor of the frantic sprint to modernize Athens but of something more personal and painful: the worldwide presumption that the reputedly party-loving, responsibility-shirking Greeks are about to screw up one of humanity's more pleasant diversions. "The world believes that Athens is not ready, that we do not know how to do things right," he said. Stathatos peered down the empty track, then smiled awkwardly. "I hope the world is wrong."
It is. Sort of. No Olympic city, ancient or modern, is ever quite ready for such a huge spectacle, especially one that is now burdened by the baggage of global terrorism. Montreal played host to the 1976 Games with an unfinished Olympic stadium; the Atlanta Games never solved their traffic and technology woes. Even Sydney, lauded as the paragon Olympics just four years ago, had myriad preparation problems--not the least of them weak ticket sales--that were soon lost in the euphoria of the competition and the welcoming atmosphere. For all host cities, the first scorekeeping of the Games is how much remains undone before the sporting events commence. And, yes, Athens seems to have lapped the field.
Yet the Games will go on, and even if the promise of international unity through ferocious competition seems a bit quaint, the Games are at least a lock to mint fresh heroes who renew the Olympic tag line of "swifter, higher, stronger." The swimming pool doesn't have a roof, but it does have water, in which American Michael Phelps will try to rekindle memories of Mark Spitz. And unlike Montreal's unfinished structure, the Athens Olympic stadium does, as of June, have a roof, though seats are another issue. No matter: the track is down, and on Aug. 24, Moroccan Hicham El Guerrouj, perhaps the greatest middle-distance runner of all time, will chase the 1,500-m gold medal that keeps eluding him. In the nearby Indoor Hall, tiny Brazilian gymnast Daiane dos Santos will spring all 4-ft. 7-in. of herself into impossible flips and twists. At the end of 17 hypercovered days, TV watchers are likely to look back in amazement at the opening ceremonies and the 100-m dash, in amusement at speed walking and team handball, and move contentedly along to football season.