Swimmers thankful for 'great honor'
ATHENS, Greece -- Gary Hall Jr. campaigned for the job, but Jenny Thompson, Lenny Krayzelburg, Tom Malchow and Lindsay Benko got the nod as captains for the powerful U.S. swim team.
Thompson has won 10 medals -- more than any female American athlete, regardless of sport. She will become just the second U.S. swimmer to compete in four Olympics, joining former rival Dara Torres.
Krayzelburg won three gold medals at the 2000 Games. Malchow captured a silver in Atlanta, a gold in Sydney and overcame a severe shoulder injury to make his third Olympic team.
Benko is a two-time Olympian.
Hall, who has won eight medals at the last two Olympics, said after the U.S. trials last month that he wanted to be a captain. He also expressed a desire to carry the American flag in Friday's opening ceremony, following in the footsteps of his father at the 1976 Montreal Games.
Some athletes train for decades to reach Olympic caliber. American archer John Magera went from zero to Athens in less than a year.
Magera, who had about 20 years experience with a hunting bow, tried the lighter Olympic-style equipment last summer after his children took interest in a junior archery program near their home in Carterville, Ill.
"I began to practice,'' said the 34-year-old Magera. "Everything was very new.''
The technique with the hunting bow is mostly a single pull-and-release motion. Olympic bows, however, allow for slower shooting with arrows traveling much greater distances. Magera tried it at a range near his home.
"I realized my scores were actually fairly good,'' he said. So he practiced all winter at home. He'd go out into the cold, fire his arrows and then warm up in the garage.
In April, he went to a tournament in Texas that served as an initial step to reach the Olympic qualifying competition. He needed a score of 600 for 72 arrows -- and got 647. At the Olympic trials in Ohio in June, he was in the top 16 and made the first cut. Then he was in the top eight after another round. He finished third -- earning the final spot on the U.S. team. There was just one problem: he had to rush to get a passport.
It didn't take U.S. gymnast Courtney McCool long to feel right at home in Athens.
The 16-year-old is the youngest member of the U.S. women's team, so she could be forgiven for a case of nerves during her first practice at the Olympic Indoor Hall. But McCool won a test event at the venue in March, and everything was just as she remembered.
"It was a little advantage, being familiar with an arena and just being comfortable with it,'' she said. "It was a great feeling to be given the opportunity to be able to do this again.''
McCool said memories of her previous trip flooded back when she stepped off the plane. She has had no trouble finding her way.
"It's a (nice) feeling to be able to -- what's the word? -- get used to it really fast,'' McCool said. "I felt comfortable when I got here. It might have taken everyone maybe a minute longer.''
The Latvian Olympic Committee stripped one of its track and field coaches, Gints Bititis, of his position after airport security guards in Prague removed him from a flight bound for Athens because he was too drunk.
"I can confirm the story but we have no further comment at this time,'' said Ilona Luse, a Latvian Track and field official in the capital, Riga.
Bititis was stripped of his Olympic accreditation and Latvian track and field officials will meet soon to decide on a replacement, Luse said.
Bititis was in Prague with another coach and showed up drunk for his flight to Athens on Wednesday, according to the Latvian newspaper Neatkariga Rita Avize. Airport security guards had to remove Bititis from the plane.
In a symbolic nod to the ancient games, Athens Olympic organizers plan to extend an olive wreath to each medalist.
"It is the first time in the modern Olympics there will be a crowning of Olympic champions,'' Ilias Antonellos, vice president of Interflora, the company donating the wreaths, said Thursday.
In Ancient Olympia, competitors were crowned with an olive wreath as a symbol of peace. At the Aug. 13-29 games, each medalist will receive a wreath and floral bouquet during the medals ceremony.
Organizers have ordered 2,563 olive wreaths and bouquets for the Olympics and 2,960 for the Paralympics.
The wreaths for the marathon race medalists are specially chosen from the island of Crete from groves thought to be the oldest olive trees in Greece, organizers said.
The bouquets will be made up of five flowers found in Greece, including roses and chrysanthemums.
One race to the finish down, one to go.
Athens Games organizers made their last report Thursday to the International Olympic Committee, earning praise from relieved IOC members that preparations are set after years of delays.
The opening ceremony is Friday, though local organizers say they won't be satisfied until the Summer Games end successfully Aug. 29.
"I think you have saved Greece and saved the IOC from great humiliation,'' said Israeli IOC member Alex Gilady, who was on the coordination team for Athens.
For years, the IOC warned that preparations were behind schedule, and urged the Greek government to speed up. In 2000, former IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch warned that the games were in danger of being moved. Greece brought in Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, who won the bid for Athens in 1997, to head the organizing effort.
"We rejoice rightfully today for the completion of the preparations,'' said IOC president Jacques Rogge.
Denis Oswald, Athens' head IOC overseer, said organizers might have finished the venues for the games, but a lot of operational work has to be done during the days of competition.
"Only the first battle is won and it's only after the 29th of August that we will be able to say the games were successful,'' Oswald said during his report.
At a separate news conference, Rogge said he expects Athens to break even or make a small profit on its operational budget of $2.3 billion. The Greek government has a separate infrastructure budget of about $7.2 billion, but analysts believe the final figure could reach $12 billion.
A few last-minute glitches popped up as the games approached. Buses were delayed picking up athletes and officials from the airport Wednesday because of a slow security clearance process. Organizers said they fixed the problem by adding more security personnel.
Also, two senior directors quit the state-run television station Thursday after technical problems caused viewers to miss the first 10 minutes of Greece's first Olympic men's soccer game.
Organizers also said they had sold more than 2.7 million tickets out of a total of 5.3 million. On Wednesday, over 90,000 tickets were purchased.
All the motivation gymnast Brett McClure needs is in his china cabinet back home.
McClure is engaged to Jaycie Phelps, a member of the Magnificent Seven that was the first U.S. women's gymnastics team to win gold in 1996, and he often looks at her gold medal for inspiration.
"Right before I got on the plane,'' McClure said Wednesday when asked when he'd last looked at the medal. "I said, 'This is what I'm working for. I want to bring this back to U.S. soil.' It's a little extra motivation and gives me some more determination.''
McClure was part of the last two U.S. world championship teams, both of which won silver medals, but this is the 23-year-old's first Olympics. Phelps, who is coming to Athens to watch McClure, didn't have much advice for her fiance.
"She just told me to enjoy every minute and things will just fall into place and good things will happen,'' McClure said. "That's what I'm doing.''
The Greek post office is joining a growing lineup of cities and countries offering to compensate athletes who win medals.
The Chicago and New York marathons are offering $500,000 to any American man or woman who wins the marathon at the Athens Olympics, while Russia's Olympic committee promised to reward gold medalists with $110,000.
Not to be outdone, Greece's postal service is not only promising riches but a stamp dedicated to winners.
Every Greek athlete who wins a medal in the Athens Games will win up to $122,000, while their image will be printed on a new stamp.
The post office will pay $122,000 to gold medalists, $61,000 to silver medalists and $30,500 to bronze winners.
The cost of the Olympics may have ballooned, but the games have united Greeks and modernized the country, Athens' chief organizer says.
"The truth is that we were obliged to do everything, to build everything, in a very short period, three years, so that means they cost more,'' said head organizer Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki. "All of them, they were worth it.''
Athens' preparations faced three years of delays after the country was awarded the games in 1997. In 2000, the International Olympic Committee warned officials that the games were in danger, and Angelopoulos-Daskalaki was brought in to help get the organization on track.
The cost of the games has increased to at least $7.2 billion, although analysts predict the final price could climb to $12 billion.
Amid the roar of the crowd, the silence of the phones can be deafening.
As thousands of athletes, spectators, journalists, officials and more descend on the Greek capital ahead of the Aug. 13 opening ceremonies of the Summer Games, phone companies are scrambling to ensure that the lines of communication, while long, remain open.
"It's been a big undertaking,'' said Sofia Marinou, a spokesman for Cosmote, the mobile arm of Greek carrier Hellenic Telecommunications, OTE, Greece's former state-owned telecom. "We put extra effort into it and we've undertaken a lot of work.''
Indeed, since 2000, OTE installed some 43,000 fixed lines throughout Olympic sites in and around Athens, as well as 3,000 ISDN connections in 60 different venues to accommodate the more than 21,500 journalists from around the world.
OTE spent about $372 million to sponsor and improve Greece's telecommunications infrastructure, install 750 miles of fiber optic cables for Olympic facilities, 6,000 high-speed computer connections and more than 5,000 broadband data connections. OTE also helped set up the lines for a secure network being used by police and security forces.
The number of masts for carrying cell phone signals from the city center to nearly everywhere in the world has more than tripled, as companies like Cosmote, Vodafone and TIM, a subsidiary of TIM Italia, positioned themselves for the crush of phone calls expected during the games.
"Greece is used to a lot of people coming to visit in the summer, but you have to look at the impact of the Olympics,'' he said, nothing that some 2.6 million tickets have been sold for the games, which end Aug. 29. "During the opening ceremonies and other events, there is going to be a a lot of people who want to make calls. Traffic is going to explode.''
So far, there have been some breakdowns and reports of dead air and dropped calls. And it's not just cell phones. Internet connections have slowed to a crawl, only to speed back up.
Former Greek King Constantine will get a glimpse of his homeland Friday after 40 years in self-imposed exile. Constantine has lived with his family in Britain since Greece abolished the monarchy in 1974 following a seven-year military dictatorship.
Constantine, an honorary member of the IOC and a 1960 Olympic gold medalist in sailing for Greece, has been invited and will likely attend a reception hosted by Greek President Costis Stephanopoulos.
The reception is being held in downtown Athens at the presidential palace, formerly the royal palace.
Sydney gold medalist Cathy Freeman has taken up a new interest: lobbying for Australia's sheep.
Perched atop a roof terrace with the Acropolis behind her, Freeman will pose with a lamb for a new advertisement for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
The ad advocates the protection of 130 million Australian sheep "who are used and abused in the international live-export industry,'' the group said.
IOC president Jacques Rogge will meet with Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi in September to "whip up'' government support for the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin.
The IOC renewed its call Thursday for Italian organizers to show "a sense of urgency'' in preparing for the games, which begin 18 months from now.
IOC officials are concerned about the pace of venue construction, shortage of accommodations and lukewarm support from the Italian government, media, sponsors and the public.
Jean-Claude Killy, head of the IOC's coordination commission for Turin, cited a need to speed up work on the bobsled and skating venues in time for test events next winter. He also expressed worry over the Olympic and media villages.
"Our Greek friends have proved that delays can be overcome,'' Rogge said, referring to the frantic preparations for the Athens Summer Games. ``All our experts are telling us that with a renewed and accelerated pace of preparations, Turin can deliver excellent games in due time.''
Turin chief organizer Valentino Castellani said he agrees there is much work to do, with just 547 days to go before the games.
In contrast to Athens' down-to-the-wire preparations, organizers of the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing are slowing their vigorous construction timetable at the request of the International Olympic Committee -- though the Chinese still plan to have all venues ready a year ahead of time.
IOC President Jacques Rogge said Thursday that the unprecedented request for a delay was mainly a money-saving measure.
"Usually, it's the other way around,'' he said, alluding to the IOC's exhortations to Athens and some previous host cities to speed up slow-moving construction.
Liu Jingmin, a Beijing deputy mayor and vice president of the organizing committee, told a news conference that organizers would take the opportunity to re-evaluate venues already being built, such as the 100,000-seat national stadium, and those not yet under construction.
"There will be some small changes to individual projects,'' he said. "All will be done by 2007 to allow time for proper testing of them.''
Liu said that, even with the changes, organizers will spend less than the planned ceiling of $2 billion for new venues.
Beijing indicated in its bid proposal for hosting the Games that it would have the venues ready by 2006. But IOC member Kevin Gosper said the IOC commission working with the organizers felt the timetable was creating an unnecessary financial squeeze.
Commission chairman Hein Verbruggen "suggested in the most diplomatic way that they could ease off on some of their targets for completion,'' Gosper told The Associated Press. "They're using cash earlier than necessary and our advice was to rearrange the cash flow -- it's sensible business management.''
Although the Athens organizers barely completed all Olympics facilities in time for Friday's opening ceremony, Liu was lavish in his praise for the Greek hosts and the venues they built.
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press
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