In Athens, home where the heart of the Games is


ATHENS -- Now, beneath the warm winds off the Saronic Gulf and under the glowing lights from the Acropolis, it's clear why the Greeks were so indignant.

They gave the 1996 Olympics to Atlanta, over us?

A belated apology to Greece is due. The centennial celebration of the rebirth of the modern Olympics was, indeed, held in the wrong place.

Sure, there are T-shirts on sale here. There are trinkets and souvenirs, but it is only a tiny part of the landscape. The commercialism that doomed Atlanta to Olympic irrelevance is dwarfed by the ruins, the centuries, the history and the new goals of Greece.

There's no other stage in the world like this one.

All of the complications imaginable, from logistical to financial to psychological to political, the Olympic Games are indeed Olympic in scale, scope and size. Yet simple, too: for sport, for peace, for pride.

For proof of greatness.

As the cradle for the Olympics not once, but twice, Greece stands alone in its own, special category. Beyond doubt, beyond reproach. The Greeks are proud owners.

In their own positive and self-assured fashion, I think they are telling us now, not exactly needing the blessing of Jacques Rogge, the International Olympic Committee chief who last week declared Greece ready.

The Greeks assured the overanxious press and the skeptical world that the 11th hour was not the same as the clock striking midnight. They pushed so they could hang their signs out in the streets:

Welcome home.

That was the message printed on the grandstand at the start of the Olympic cycling road race. I noticed it in front of Athens City Hall as I walked back to my hotel.

Welcome home.

I had just trekked up to the Acropolis -- a sight that actually caused me to gasp. To ascend the hill is to go so far back in time, it takes your breath away. This is exactly what happened as I made a turn up a winding road, past an Orthodox church holding a candlelit service, past taverna waiters attempting to woo tourists to their tables for kebabs, souvlaki, retsina and pure, idle contentedness.

Any people that could build the Parthenon should have never been underestimated in the ability to pull off a few sports stadiums, pave some roads, install a rail service and build housing.

So it's no wonder the sign at the cycling venue did not say, "Welcome Home to Greece." That would have been unnecessary.

Like the shot put competition that will bring the Olympics back to its origin in ancient Olympia, the new-age cycling event will bring the Olympics to the streets of Athens -- the old and new Athens.

The 13.2-kilometer bike course will allow television cameras to beam Athens all over the world -- and the heart of this city is ready to show how it is poised between East and West, between ancient and modern, between here and there, then and now.

This is not only the land of the Acropolis, of philosophers. It is now also the land of E-Z Pass lanes on refurbished highways. It is the land of light rail, modern hotels and chic shops selling digital cameras, Starbucks, Merrell shoes.

Walking these streets in the days leading to the start of these Summer Games, it was already clear: Greece has done it again. Another success -- at least in that the Greeks have delivered themselves to the doorstep of something potentially extraordinary.

What's a pool roof when an entire country's legacy is at stake?

"The Olympics-related projects have been delivered and preparations have been completed. ... Everything foreshadows a successful Games," said the editorial in Wednesday's editions of Kathimerini, the English-language newspaper of Athens.

"It is not only the mammoth sums of money that have been spent on the venues and infrastructure. It is also that the Games will be an international test for the country."

This is not an uncommon burden or mandate where the Olympics are concerned. As a catalyst for change, as a means of upgrading infrastructure and image, the promise of such transformation is why cities and countries are willing to put this generation and the next of their citizens in taxation hock.

The price tag cannot account for benefits -- tangible or not -- that can come.

Already, even hard-line skeptics and critics of these Athens Games have acknowledged that new traffic patterns, new mass transit systems and new apartment complexes have been worthwhile ventures.

So, too, it seems to be proving a valuable lesson that Greece found within itself a resolve to pull together, even if old politics and entrenched habits hewn over centuries warn against saying the task of delivering preparedness created blissful unity. The national blame game over the painful cost of these Games will commence as soon as the closing ceremony is done.

In the meantime, these Games are about to be staged in a place that needed to use the greatness of its past to get a leg up on a more solid future. Because of that, the world may think Greece needed the Games to achieve its goals, but it's more than that.

Under the warm winds and the glow on the Acropolis, as the shot put gets heaved into the Mediterranean night and bicycles zip over fresh asphalt in the heart of old Athens, don't be surprised:

Greeks won't be the only ones championing their cause, their stirring past, their brave future.


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