A little piece of hell

Updated: July 15, 2004, 7:39 PM ET
By Ray Ratto | Special to ESPN.com

The good news is, the Athens blackout is almost completely solved.

The bad news is, the folks in Greece who are paid to know think it may happen again.

It gets hot in the summer in Greece. Really hot. It strains the country's electrical grid in normal times, and when the electrical demand grows exponentially next month, it will scream in agony. At least that's the worry.

Which leads us to think that, well, why should the athletes know all the privations? Why not a more equitable distribution of the torture?

For a while, we thought that maybe the Greeks were just messing with us again in retribution for all our complaining: "Oh, you don't like the pace of our construction workers? Well, get a load of this, smart ass."

But we've decided against that scenario, only because the Greeks are already dealing with a skittish tourist base as it is and don't need any more grief than they've already received.

This has been, as we all know, the most nightmarish preparation process for any recent Olympics, and every few weeks or so, something new comes up. Most recently (well, until the blackout, anyway), the news was that the Greeks weren't going to pay a San Diego-based security company for not installing security systems on buildings that weren't yet completed.

I suppose you could make this stuff up, but you'd have a hard time convincing anyone else that it was plausible.

But the blackout, this close to the opening ceremonies -- now that's downright inspirational.

Suddenly, the athletes sprinting for their competitive lives on the floor of a stadium where the heat index is hell-minus-11-degrees, can have a reasonable hope that it's just as unpleasant for the blazer army of judges and other self-important popinjays, or for the high rollers in the seats.

It is the democratization of the Olympics in the only way there really is. You can't even up the income disparities, but everyone feels 105-degree heat without air conditioning the same way.

And let's be honest here. The athletes, at least the American track athletes, are in no mood to be generous of spirit these days.

They have been going through the trials in Sacramento in moods that vary from exaltation to anger, as the BALCO vulture circles inexhaustibly above Hornet Stadium. The ones under suspicion loathe the media, and the ones who aren't, loathe the media for concentrating on the ones under suspicion.

It is, essentially, a mutual hate-fest in 90-degree heat, precisely the thing the U.S. Track and Field honchos need least.

But take the winners to Greece, kick up another 15 degrees a day, and then turn off the air conditioning, and just imagine the hilarity that ensues. Especially when Michael Phelps can't swim his eighth record-breaking event because he's caught in a traffic jam -- or elevator.

Oh, some people might find this a recipe for disaster, but we prefer to consider the Olympic ideal, and see the athletes, the support staff, the fans, the locals and the media all realizing that they are in this together, enduring the searing heat and relentless inconvenience with the equanimity that comes from knowing (or at least hoping) that everyone's in it together.

Of course, not everyone will be in it together, because like so much of the Olympic ideal, it looks better from a distance, and at a squint. Like everywhere else, the money talks loudest, and even in an air-free environment, some folks will buy the air they need.

Besides, the odds of another blackout are pretty slim ... aren't they?

But on the, say, 50-50 chance that Athens will go dark next month with the whole world watching (which is a pretty big drag when you get right down to it), we can all hope that the Olympic Village and all its temporary suburbs gather together as one and laugh at the elements, singing "Kumbaya" and "Hify" with one voice.

Or in the alternative, that the cops can keep the rioting away from the Parthenon.

Ray Ratto is a columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle and a regular contributor to ESPN.com

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