ATHENS, Greece – From the start, the predictions were grim. Olympic venues wouldn’t be finished on time. Security would be lax. Traffic would snarl. Millions of tourists would be stranded on city streets, with no way to get around, after a massive blackout.

But somehow, Athens organizers managed to pull it off. And the 2004 games, which ended Sunday night after a ceremony of traditional Greek songs and dances, unfolded about as smoothly as Greeks were hoping. Whether the rest of the world agrees or not, the country is already claiming the gold for playing host to the best games ever.

Of course, there were bumps along the way – the doping scandal involving Greece’s top two sprinters; the empty seats at many Olympic events, particularly early in the games; the small fire ignited by fireworks at a private party hosted by the Athens 2004 head honcho; and the loud boos for the Americans during the men’s 200-meter dash (which a Greek was favored to win – before he missed his scheduled drug test, that is).

But in the minds of many Greeks, such details are minor. Did you eat well, they ask. Did you dance, they inquire. Did you drink, stay up late, do things you weren’t supposed to do and laugh a lot?

“These are the things that count,” said Mihalis Raptis, 58, who runs a fruit stand in busy Syntagma Square across from the Greek parliament. “The Olympics in 2004 was a party for the entire planet. I think the games should always be held here in Greece, where they started.”

Well, perhaps not every time, Greeks say. As it is, the country will have a tough time paying for these Olympics. Latest estimates have the games costing just under $12 billion – more than twice the original estimates. Security alone has cost the Greeks $1.6 billion, four times that of Sydney and a record for any Olympics.

Greek government officials said last week they would not be releasing revenue figures until after the Paralympic games end Sept. 28. Ticket sales for the main games just barely met expectations. As of Saturday, about 3.56 million tickets, out of 5.3 million available, had been sold.

Tourism was also paltry. It was down 8 percent from last year, when roughly 12.5 million people visited the country. This after millions of dollars were poured into building and renovating hotels and advertising the return of the games to Greece.

But Athens Mayor Dora Bakoyannis said she believed the benefits of the games would ultimately outweigh the costs. Because of the Olympics, Athens has new highways, a new metro and a new suburban rail line, all of which connect to the city’s new airport, she said. Walkways were built, city squares renovated and planted with trees and flowers, and sidewalks retrofitted with special tiles to facilitate the handicapped.

Such improvements, she said, will remain after the athletes go home.

“All costs cannot be measured in euros,” Bakoyannis said last week. “The cost of failure would have meant that Greece could not move forward – we would have become prisoners of our past.”

Thanos Veremis, a professor of modern Greek history at the University of Athens, said Greeks also gained something invaluable from mounting these Olympics: self-confidence.

“The Greeks have these highs and lows,” Veremis said. “We are at a high this moment. It has made people believe in themselves. Hopefully, it will last.”

Veremis and others said the last 17 days showed that a small country once characterized by friendly chaos could deliver fun, organized and secure Olympics. At every venue, volunteers were on hand to help move crowds quickly and efficiently, they say. And access to downtown Athens was relatively easy. Even the once-critical IOC president, Jacques Rogge, ended up heaping praise on Greece for the games’ smooth run.

Glitches

Not that there weren’t glitches. Three days before the Olympics began, Greece’s top sprinters, Kostas Kenteris and Katerina Thanou, were summoned for a drug test, but failed to show up. Then, the two landed in the hospital after a mysterious motorcycle accident. Soon after, they withdrew from competition, but not before it was revealed that their trainer was stockpiling forbidden substances in one of his warehouses.

Then, on the heels of the success of opening ceremonies, Athens 2004 leader Gianna Angelopoulou threw a party for heads of state and other dignitaries at her mansion in an Athens suburb. She put on a fireworks show and started a fire, burning a few acres of pine trees in a city that badly needs them. Greece’s prime minister was reportedly so disgusted, he left on the spot. The incident is still being investigated.

It didn’t end there. At the 200-meter dash in which Kenteris was supposed to run, the three American sprinters in particular were soundly booed for almost 10 minutes. The race went on, and the three took the gold, silver and the bronze.

And just this last weekend, after U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell announced he would be attending the Olympics’ closing ceremonies, left-wing groups staged a loud march to protest the Iraq war. Holding up banners that read, “Americans, you’re drowning in the blood of Najaf,” the marchers momentarily seized the spotlight away from the games.

Powell ended up postponing his visit, ostensibly because of a busy schedule, but congratulated Athens for mounting a safe and successful Olympics.

Letdown?

Even with the games over, there is worry about what the future holds. Will there be a letdown after all the success?

Giorgos Tsiolis, 23, who runs a news stand in downtown Athens, said he was already feeling the pinch of paying for the Olympics. Life in the city has become more expensive, he said, while wages have remained fixed. And while infrastructure was improved and new streets were paved, he believes the work was rushed and superficial.

Ioannis Bakalis, 38, a musician who fears his taxes will soon skyrocket, put it this way: “I believe the Olympics are for big business and politicians. The Olympics was one big pie, and it was split up between them.”

Zorba attitude

Raptis, the fruit vendor, has more of a Zorba-like attitude toward life after the Olympics. Negativity, he said, existed before the games started. In fact, he said, Greece was drowning in it.

“Look what happened, though,” he said. “Everything went well. It went better than well.”

“When this is over, life will go on,” said Raptis. “And so will we.”



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