Athenians finally getting excited a month before Olympics

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    ATHENS, Greece – Teenagers ran through the streets waving Greek flags. Scooters and motorcycles zigzagged around them, honking horns in a raucous midnight celebration. Firework smoke obscured the view of the moon from the Acropolis.

    The Olympics are a month away and Athenians finally – after years of self doubt, worldwide criticism and clouds of construction dust – are ready to party.

    The nationwide celebration that followed Greece’s shocking title in the European soccer championship earlier this month may have served as a taste of what’s to come during the Aug. 13-29 Summer Games.

    But it also seemed to lift the spirits of a city and nation that had grown collectively grumpy in the buildup to the Olympics. In fact, one poll earlier this year found Greece to be the world’s second-most pessimistic nation, behind Slovakia.

    But the gloom seems to be lifting. Another survey, published Sunday, found that 85 percent of Greeks now support hosting the Olympic Games – with nearly one-fifth of that group admitting they did not support the idea in the beginning.

    Tired of constant international doubts about Athens’ readiness for the games and frustrated with around-the-clock roadwork, Greeks welcomed the totally unexpected soccer title as a chance to raise a glass of ouzo and toast themselves.

    “Until the Euro 2004 win, it didn’t feel like there was going to be an Olympics here,” says Jason Kazanis, a Greek-Australian who has been living in Athens since late May. “People are now saying, `It’s our year, this is our chance to show the world what we can do.'”

    Of course, not everything is ready. And Greece’s worst blackout in more than a decade hit Athens and southern Greece on Monday, raising concerns about whether the lights will go out at the Olympics.

    Roads are still being paved, seats are being installed in Olympic venues and landscaping has not begun around the butterfly-shaped Olympic stadium and other showpieces of the games.

    And gaps remain in the $1.2 billion security system. About 100 subcommand centers still have not been completed, and little time remains to test security networks at the main stadium complex – where construction is still under way.

    A taxi driver proudly points to a freshly repaved portion of Kifissias Avenue, the main road leading from downtown Athens to the Olympic stadium, only to burst out laughing a block later at the sight of a road crew fixing a pothole.

    “That’s the way it’s been, all fixed one night and refixing it the next,” he says. “That’s the Greek way.”

    There’s also the weather. It was 110 degrees on Sunday, and the power outage cut off air conditioning for up to four hours as temperatures pushed past 104. At one point, generators were pressed into service at Olympic venues.

    July is traditionally the hottest month in Greece, with highs often topping 100. The Greek weather service said average highs in Athens during the Olympics should be about 90.

    George Roussopoulos, an information technology consultant, quickly acknowledges Athens is not yet ready for the Olympics _ but says the soccer victory is giving Athenians a chance to believe they can pull it off.

    “No one thought Greece would win the Euro and they did,” he says, “so anything can happen.”

    The soccer title highlighted the striking contrasts of Athens, a city that mixes classical with modern in a way perhaps unmatched by any other place.

    Greek orthodox priests with long beards and head-to-toe black gowns sit at sidewalk cafes chatting on cell phones. A sleek new subway system and one of the world’s most impressive airports lead visitors to chaotic downtown streets where cars are parked on the sidewalks.

    An Athens baker, hearing a visitor speaking English to his family, starts cursing in Greek about “Bush and Blair” and how Americans are ruining the world. Then he hands the children cookies and gives the visitor two free loaves of bread.

    On the night after the July 4 soccer victory, visitors to the Acropolis looked down at a sea of Greek flags around the ancient marble stadium that hosted the 1896 Olympics. Fireworks provided extra percussion for an orchestra playing Mahler’s First Symphony in an 1,800-year-old outdoor amphitheater near the Parthenon.

    Vagelis Constantine, who sells gyros in the touristy Plaka district below the Acropolis, says the Athens Olympics will be in keeping with his nation’s style.

    “It might not be the most perfectly organized Olympics, but perfect is sometimes boring,” he says. “It’s going to be a Greek Olympics – it’s going to be totally unpredictable.

    “After all it has cost us here, it better be spectacular. Greeks expect nothing less, we have paid through the nose.”

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