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Monday, August 23, 2004
Updated: August 24, 11:51 AM ET
Pleasant surprises in Athens

By Jim Caple
Page 2

ATHENS, Greece -- The only negative to Athens is the need to shower every hour on the hour, even when you're sleeping.

I wake up each morning, take a shower and walk out the door feeling as fresh as Derek Jeter on Opening Day. But by the time I've walked to the Metro, changed trains and reached our office, I look like Albert Brooks during the flop-sweat scene in "Broadcast News." Dallas Cowboys' linemen don't sweat as much during two-a-days.

It was a delightful 95 degrees on Sunday; and though the temperature had dropped by the 6 p.m. start of the women's marathon, the heat still took a toll. Great Britain's Paula Radcliffe was the heavy gold medal favorite; but with less than four miles remaining, she was forced to stop because her legs started melting. She gamely tried to finish the race, but managed only another couple hundred yards before turning into liquid and then evaporating into the air.

"It was so frustrating," a British fan with the Union Jack painted on her face told me on the Metro afterward. "There were 10,000 Brits waiting for her in the stadium. We're watching her on the video board and she just stops six kilometers from the stadium. She tried to start again and she couldn't. We wanted to go pick her up and carry her to the finish line."

Aside from when you're attempting to run 26 miles to the shower, however, the heat is a minor inconvenience because the rest of the Olympic experience is spectacular.

Everyone who had planned to attend but stayed away due to fears of terrorism (knock on wood, toss salt over the shoulder, say 15 Hail Mary's) is missing out. This is the sixth Olympics I've covered, and it is easily the least crowded. Despite all we heard about how far behind schedule Athens was, the Greeks pulled it off. Not only are the venues completed; they are clean, easy to reach and -- best of all -- air-conditioned. Not only is the Metro clean, efficient and rarely crowded; there is no requirement to pay for its use. If you have a ticket to an event, it's officially free to travel to the venue; and if you don't have a ticket, you're completely on your honor to pay.

Competition tickets, meanwhile, are so available that you usually can buy them for less than face value. I felt pretty smug paying half-price for Michael Phelps' final race on Friday, until I sat down next to a woman who was calling her friend to say she had paid one-quarter face value.

While the scalper who sold me a ticket to the U.S.-Puerto Rico basketball game was especially nervous about getting busted -- trading nuclear secrets to Iran would be easier than buying a ticket from that guy -- most scalpers are brazenly open. There are stalls in the city center with signs touting "Olympic tickets: Face value and lower!" while dozens of scalpers stand outside one of the main metro stops trying to unload fistfuls of tickets

Scalpers are notoriously unreliable about the prices they're getting -- whatever amount they claim, divide it by at least four -- so when a couple of them told me that business is "up and down," I interpreted it to mean they would be better off scalping Expos tickets.

The problem is that some events are so sparsely attended that the scalpers don't bother showing up. Like women's weightlifting, a sport that is so far out of the mainstream that Poland had the largest and loudest presence. Even though Savannah's Cheryl Haworth was a medal contender, there were fewer Americans in the arena than at an Al-Qaeda cave-warming party.

Fortunately, a Japanese woman had an extra ticket she offered me for half-price at 40 Euro. That was still too steep -- hey, I love women's weightlifting as much as the next guy, but I'm not a fanatic -- so I walked up to the box office and asked how much the cheapest tickets were. Told they went for 30 Euro, the Japanese woman immediately matched the price and we closed the deal right in front of the ticket window. The officials didn't care -- given the sparse attendance I think they just were happy someone was going inside.

Olympics
(By the way, I'm not sure if you caught a glimpse of the Polish bronze medalist, Agata Wrobel, but she's terrific. She weighs about 250 pounds, can lift more than 350 pounds over her head, has shocking pink hair and wears earrings as large as hula hoops. I think friends set me up on a blind date with her once.)

The most pleasant surprise, however, is the concession prices. I bought two slices of pizza and a bottle of soda for about $5. If a major league team offered prices like that, the commissioner would have it placed before a military tribunal in Guantanamo.

Souvenirs, however, are scandalously high. T-shirts are $32 and Olympic pins start at $10. Looking at them, I could just envision "90 percent off" signs magically appearing the moment the Olympic flame goes out.

Those prices are bargains, however, compared to the official line of clothing being sold at Russia House. Those guys are trying to sell white t-shirts with RUSSIA written across the chest for $105. Seriously. One hundred and five dollars for a t-shirt! Sure, the Soviet Empire was one of the cruelest, most corrupt governments in human history and a constant threat to world peace; but at least during the Cold War, you could buy an athlete's entire Olympic wardrobe for a pair of torn Levis. And if you threw in a couple of Springsteen bootlegs, you could probably get his gold medal, too.

I couldn't buy them even if they were half-price, though. I need to save my money for another case of anti-perspirant.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com