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An Ancient City Undergoes A Facelift For The Olympics

ATHENS – (dpa) – Renowned for its pollution, traffic and acres of concrete buildings, tourists visiting Greece often rush through its ancient capital Athens and head for the islands.

But the 2004 Olympics are going to change all that and revive Athens in its ancient glory. In fact, the metamorphosis has been so sudden that many Athenians can hardly believe their eyes.

“It’s incredible. It used to take years for anything to actually get done. Now, it seems that everywhere you look, the old is being replaced with the new,” said one Athens resident Doria Tsirigoti recently.

Fountains are sprouting up at every corner, cracked and narrow sidewalks have been converted into pedestrian walkways and millions of trees and plants will be planted around the city in time for the Summer Games.

Tacky billboards have been pulled down from around Athens’ Omonia Constitution, Monastiraki and Koumoundourou Squares and neglected neo-classical buildings are receiving long-overdue refurbishment.

Greek officials believe Athens’ hosting of the world’s largest sports event will not only help improve the economy and create jobs, but also change the image of the city, putting it on a par with other great Olympic cities such as Barcelona and Sydney.

“The Games have the power to alter an entire city and we are determined to restore Athens to its former glory, and make it beautiful once again,” said Athens Deputy Mayor Nikolaidis Giatrakos.

“Athens is the least ‘green’ city of Europe, but the fast approaching Olympic Games are bringing about changes. More parks are being developed, including the largest in Europe at the site of the old airport,” added Giatrakos.

The city’s transport system is being revolutionized with the new Metro, the international airport, a suburban railway, a network of highways and a tram system to accommodate the millions of athletes, journalists and tourists expected in Athens during the Games.

Hotel accommodation is undergoing expansion and improvements, while the capital’s extensive coastline, which includes beaches, recreation centres, harbours and marinas, is being restructured.

“Projects which have been held up for years due to bureaucratic delays are now fast becoming reality and will have to be completed in time for the Games,” an Athens 2004 organizer told Deutsche Presse- Agentur dpa.

During the first modern Olympics in 1896, Athens was little more than a small village at the foot of the Acropolis, but rampant development since the 1950s has left the city overcrowded and in disarray.

Suddenly ancient landmarks such as the Parthenon, the Olympian Zeus Temple, ancient Agora and the Greek cemetery of Keramikos were marooned in a sea of ugly concrete apartment buildings.

Now, with the help of a 606-million-dollar programme, all of the city’s archaeological sites will be linked by a walkway and park.

“Our primary interest is the situation on the day after,” said Athens 2004 Olympic Games President Gianna Angelopoulou-Daskalaki.

“We now possess a wonderful instrument for improving the living space for the inhabitants of the greater Athens area. Our actions aims at what we call a better quality of life for the city.”

Aside from Athens, other Greek cities will also undergo major restructuring ahead of the Olympics.

Ancient Olympia in the Peloponnesian peninsula, the birthplace of the Games 2,776 years ago, is getting a 33-million-dollar make-over.

The archaeological site of Ancient Olympia will be extended and developed, in accordance with a master plan provided by the German Archaeological Institute, which has excavated the site for the past 150 years.

There, archaeologists will reconstruct a doric column of the 5th century BC temple of Zeus, to give visitors an idea of its true size.

A new Olympic Games Museum, which will house ancient athletic gear such as long-jump weights, will be open to the public while the existing museum, which houses the famous 330 BC marble statue of Hermes by Praxiteles will be reorganized.

Other improvements include a better pathway leading to the ancient sanctuary and signs explaining the various ruins.

“We want the 2004 Games to be authentic. To be in an historic context, authentic Olympic Games, with ancient Olympia being at the centre of everyone’s attention,” said Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos.

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