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Hello Athens Never has an Olympic host city battled so much criticism, sparked so many security concerns or been so crucial to the future of the Games. Is Greece ready? Excellent question


What were sunsets to us, with the wild excitement upon us of
approaching the most renowned of cities! What cared we for
outward visions, when Agamemnon, Achilles and a thousand other
heroes of the great past were marching in ghostly procession
through our fancies?
--MARK TWAIN, before his first visit to Athens, in The Innocents

Nikos Polias felt it just once. The gods, the history, the ruins:
all of it like a tremor in his heart, like hot breath on his
neck. What the hell, he thought, is going on?

Yes, Polias is Greek; yes, he grew up knowing that the seawalls
he ran upon were built in 600 B.C., and he can tell you, in the
offhand manner of someone pointing out where his old high school
used to be, how the Greeks smashed the Persians 2,484 years ago
over there, off that point at Salamina.

But antiquity didn't come to him through books. He breathed it.
He lived it daily. His Athens was teeth-grinding traffic, a
glimpse of the Parthenon, construction sites that seemed eternal
because someone had stumbled on a relic, his carpenter father
coming home drained from hammering inside ships all day. Tourists
could afford to coo over the past. Polias was born under the
shadow of a military junta. When he won his first race, barefoot,
beating the neighborhood boys on the cracked streets encircling
his home, he wasn't thinking about legend.

Later, as he developed into Greece's top marathoner, Polias
learned about the Battle of Marathon between the Greeks and the
Persians and about a Greek soldier named Phidippides who ran the
25 miles to Athens to announce "We won!" and then keeled over
dead. But Polias never took much inspiration from the story, not
least because that Monty Python ending tended to undermine the
heroics. And Polias certainly wasn't expecting anything special
that day in 1997 when he lined up for the Athens Marathon on the
ancient course. Moments into the race he was in 104th place,
running tired and scared. Six miles in, though, he began to ...
feel something. He started passing opponents, one by one. He
still can't explain it. "I felt him," Polias says.

Phidippides. For some reason, on that day only, Polias thought of
the ultimate distance runner and was literally moved. He looked
at his watch, looked again; he was running mile after mile at a
4:50 pace, something he hadn't managed for even one mile in
practice. This is impossible, he thought. Polias felt as if he
had escaped his body, as if he were watching himself or watching
Phidippides watching him. He kept passing other runners, dozens
now. He began to cry. He felt as if he were flying. The Greeks,
of course, have a word for it: euphoria.

Polias has won other races, has won the Athens Marathon four
times, but that 1997 race, in which he finished 19th, hit him
like nothing before or since. It's the same sensation claimed by
those who take in the Acropolis by moonlight: a vibration in the
dust, a touch of the past that you feel nowhere else. It is why
people claim to love Athens despite its endless strikes and
chock-a-block architecture; it's why the Olympic Games, despite
having every reason not to, will return to the Greek capital this
summer after 108 years away. Athens is a burrow back to the
beginning. It's an experience that, if you're lucky, leaves you
feeling everything but calm.

"I remember thinking it was very weird," Polias says.

This shows what sort of a country modern Attica is--a community
of questionable characters.... The modern inhabitants are
confiscators and falsifiers of high repute, if gossip speaks
truly concerning them, and I freely believe it does.
--MARK TWAIN, after his first visit to Athens, in The Innocents

The sprinter in question yells, his voice barely cutting through
the wind. The coach in question waves from the opposite end of
the track and lifts his stopwatch, clicking it as the sprinter
begins to move. The stands are empty. It is a frigid November
evening, and Kostas Kenteris is going slow, measuring his stride,
tinkering like a machinist with the gears and belts that have
made him a hero. At the 2000 Olympics he pulled off perhaps the
biggest shock of the Games, blazing to a win in the 200-meter
final and becoming the first male Greek runner since 1896 to win
an Olympic gold medal. A ship, a jet, a stadium bear his name.
Kenteris straightens up out of the turn, glides easily down the
stretch. The Athens Games are nine months away, but he's worrying
every step between now and the pistol's crack.

"What I fear most is the last moment," he says. "I just pray that
I'm going to be fine up to that last moment. I want to be safe, I
want to be in good shape. There's a fine line between success and
failure, and I want to be sure that I don't cross it."

Outside the walls of the Olympic training center, the city in
question pushes yet another night to the limit. Cafes are packed
for now and for hours to come, the lowliest restaurant and legal
prostitute will soon be serving dishes of alarming freshness,
and, no matter the hour, the hurried and high alike will remember
to cross themselves when passing a church. Much of Athens' fabled
energy rises from a chaos of opposites--old, new, devout,
debauched--but the most incongruous pairing these days may be the
hope and dread entwined in any discussion about this August's
Olympic homecoming. With that once grand vision obscured by a
blizzard of logistical detail, the city lies a hobbled mess:
major roads clogged with construction, countless buildings
defaced by scaffolding, a psyche battered by years of worldwide
distrust and criticism. Like its most famous athlete, Athens
makes no predictions. It just wants to hit the starting line in
good shape and avoid ignominy.

Yet even that modest success is still in question. After winning
the bid to host these Games in 1997, the Greek government and the
Athens organizing committee frittered away nearly three years of
potential construction time, indulging in bureaucratic tussles
and showing such a startling lack of urgency that longtime
Olympic czar Juan Antonio Samaranch called the Athens 2004 effort
the worst organizational crisis of his career. Trial balloons
about moving the Games to another city were floated. No Olympic
host has ever so blithely courted disaster.

But now, after three years of IOC badgering and a cascade of
negative press, it seems as if Athens might just make it. "Every
venue should be ready before the Games, leaving us enough
time--even if it's little time--to do the testing, to put the
[Olympic] overlays [on]," said Denis Oswald, chairman of the
IOC's Athens coordination commission, after his inspection last
October. "The only worry we have is that the pace will not be
kept because of unexpected difficulties."

But that's hardly the only worry. Seven years ago, Athens' lack
of infrastructure and its lax approach to security made its
selection by the IOC merely a shaky bet. Now it is a massive
gamble. The 2004 Summer Games will be the first held since the
attack on the Twin Towers, the first since the war in Iraq, the
first since last November's terrorist attacks in Turkey--four
bombings that killed a total of 62 people--and there's no
avoiding geography: The IOC almost couldn't have picked a worse
city to host an Olympics today. Greece has long been considered
the sick man of Europe in terms of battling terrorism. True, it
has taken unprecedented steps against domestic terror in the last
two years and will spend $800 million on Olympic security (more
than three times the amount spent at the 2000 Sydney Games), but
the country's leaky borders and its proximity to the Middle East
and to major immigration smuggling routes make Athens a target
all but begging to be hit.

"The Greeks can be attacked from the sea, from the ground, from
the air; they're really quite exposed," says Arik Arad, an
Israeli security specialist. "They should've started to prepare a
long time ago." This is something all Greek officials concede,
blaming the late start on what Nikos Konstandaras, editor of the
influential daily Kathimerini, calls "the Greek tradition of
managing O.K. in a crisis but hardly managing the rest of the
time." But it also dovetails with all the cliches about, at best,
Greek inefficiency and, at worst, Greek untrustworthiness.

In December, 15 core members of Greece's most notorious domestic
terror outfit, November 17, were convicted of 19 murders
committed between 1982 and 2000 and given sentences ranging from
eight years to life in prison. But observers note that the group
had begun its bloody attacks in 1975 and wonder why it took Greek
law enforcement 27 years to make the first arrest. In '00 Paul
Bremer, then chair of the U.S. National Commission on Terrorism
(he is now the top U.S. administrator in Iraq), slammed the Greek
government for its ineffectiveness against terrorists and
recommended a U.S. arms embargo of the country. Former CIA
director James Woolsey accused "high-ranking members" of the
ruling Socialist party of "protecting the terrorists." And over
the last three years the IOC, the U.S. State Department and a
seven-nation advisory group formed at Greece's behest have
repeatedly pressed Olympic organizers for more aggressive
security plans, reinforcing the impression that Greece doesn't
know enough or care enough to stop an attack.

A wholesale test of the Olympic security system in August
revealed that it was as porous as a sieve, according to The
Washington Post. In November public order minister Giorgos
Floridis denounced the report but confirmed that the test
uncovered "some holes to be filled." That same month Greece
announced the formation of a 200-person unit dedicated to
countering nuclear and biochemical terrorism--but only after U.S.
advisers, led by FBI director Robert Mueller, expressed
dissatisfaction with the country's preparations. Mueller's Nov. 7
tour of Athens, where he presented awards to the Greek
law-enforcement officers credited with shutting down November 17,
was welcomed by local anarchists with three firebomb attacks

A week later Floridis massaged a string of worry beads as he told
SI that while international terrorism remains a high concern, he
considers Greece a secure place "at absolutely minimal risk" of
domestic terrorism. Asked if the recent firebombings gave him
pause, Floridis admitted that remnants of November 17 might still
exist, but he added, "All these things are under control. They
may happen, but they are controlled."

The next morning six buildings in downtown Athens were firebombed
in 20 minutes. (The extremist group Revolutionary Solidarity
claimed responsibility.) Three days later, to celebrate the 30th
anniversary of the student uprising against the U.S.-backed
military junta that ruled Greece from 1967 to '74, a crowd of at
least 10,000 marched on the U.S. embassy in Athens; police
arrested 42 people for carrying concealed weapons and hurling
sticks, stones and firebombs. No one was seriously hurt, however,
and Floridis isn't alone in his confidence about Olympic
security. Some observers, in fact, believe Greece is the victim
of a reputation it no longer deserves.

"The will is there today," says Athens mayor Dora Bakoyannis.
"I'm an opposition leader, but nobody can say that the government
is not doing everything possible. Believe me. I'm a very hard

A star of the New Democracy party--which as of last week seemed
en route to turning out the Socialist administration in the March
national elections--Bakoyannis knows terror firsthand. In 1989
her husband, Pavlos, a deputy in the Greek Parliament, was shot
to death by November 17 assassins as he entered his office
building. Two months after Bakoyannis's election as mayor in
2002, a lone gunman fired at her car; he missed her only because
she had bent over to grab her purse. She still believes that in
the past Greece was soft on terror but insists that after
implementing strict antiterror laws in '00 and cracking down on
November 17, the country is taking what U.S. Olympic Team
security chief Larry Buendorf calls "a false hit" on security.

"They're doing what's necessary," Buendorf said in December. "I'm
comfortable that the Greek authorities are going to provide a
safe and secure environment for athletes. If they started the
Games today, we'd be there. When they start in August, we'll be

Of course, Atlanta was considered safe in 1996, and the Olympics
still fell victim to a backpack bomb that killed two people. In a
scared new world the Greeks are considering much worse scenarios:
the ramming of one of the 11 cruise ships that will be parked in
Piraeus harbor by a boat filled with explosives, like the one
that attacked the USS Cole; a chemical gas attack in the Athens
subway; a car bomb exploding on a traffic-clogged street;
terrorist sleeper cells awakening. But nobody can answer the most
important question--is Greece ready?--until the worst occurs,
just as nobody can say for sure whether all venues will be
complete until the moment the torch is lit. The '04 Olympics are
the perfect event for uncertain times: Rumors rule, and
prediction is a fool's game.

September 11 wasn't the only event that raised the stakes for the
IOC. Athens was chosen as a corrective to the commercialism of
the '96 Atlanta Games. The Athens organizing committee is
promising a return to the Olympics "on a human scale," as they
were conceived in 776 B.C. and revived in Athens in 1896, but the
inspired decision to hold some events in historic venues could
easily backfire. The shot put, for example, will be contested at
the birthplace of the ancient Games--Olympia--providing a chance,
according to Lamine Diack, the president of track and field's
international governing body, the IAAF, "to show the worldwide
public how pure and how stirring the holding of the competition
in a sacred environment may be." Or to show that public just how
far the Olympics have strayed, if some athlete in one of these
venues, maybe a shot-putter, tests positive for an illegal
substance. And God forbid it should be a Greek athlete. That,
says Polias, "would be bad for everybody."

These days no country can afford to be sanctimonious about
performance-enhancing drugs--the parade of athletes busted over
the last year reads like a roll call at the U.N.--but in an
atmosphere as poisoned and rife with rumor as track and field's,
the Greek athletes and their federation have done themselves no
favors. In the past decade Greece has become a European track
power. Sprinter Kenteris, European champions Mirela Manjani in
the javelin and Katerina Vongoli in the discus, and Sydney
100-meter silver medalist Katerina Thanou are blossoming in time
for Athens. But 14 months ago the IAAF issued a humiliating
public warning to SEGAS, the Greek track and field federation,
after an alarming number of its athletes couldn't be found for
out-of-competition testing for banned substances. Nine of the
world's 14 no-shows for the '02 season were Greek.

SEGAS angrily blamed this on poor communication by one Greek
tester and charged that Kenteris & Co. were being singled out
unfairly. "We have at least 10 top athletes who fully comply with
the rules and regulations," says SEGAS president Vasilios
Sevastis, "so we do not understand why the international
community is so suspicious toward Greek athletes."

One reason is that the top Greeks rarely compete--or submit to
testing--at any but the major championships. The other is that,
despite feeling excessively scrutinized, they haven't made much
of an effort to toe the IAAF line. Last April coach Christos
Tzekos misinformed SEGAS about the whereabouts of his prize
pupils, Kenteris and Thanou. The federation directed testers to
Crete, where they came up empty; SEGAS had no idea that the coach
and his runners had abruptly flown to Qatar. Tzekos takes
responsibility for the incident but says it was based on a
miscommunication and blown out of proportion. Three days later,
in fact, Kenteris tested clean. He was tested six times in 2003
(four times out of competition) and passed each time.

Tzekos is a polarizing figure in Greek track, credited with
improving his runners' training methods and attitude but
distrusted because of his secrecy, his slick suits and his
decidedly un-Greek way of comporting himself. "He's like an
American, a crazy man," says one SEGAS official. Indeed, the
39-year-old Tzekos says that selling nutritional supplements in
the Chicago suburbs in the early 1980s was the transforming
experience of his life. "I found out that for the American dream
you have to work very, very hard," he says. "In my country at the
same time nobody liked to work; everybody liked to sit in the
chair.... So mentalitywise, I changed. I found out I have to work
very hard if I want to win something."

In his teens he was a talented middle-distance runner, he says,
"but I never liked my sport. So I became a coach of the
sprinters." He met Thanou when she was a student in 1989 and
began coaching her three years later. He insisted that she train
like no other Greek runner: 10-hour days, always running fast,
showing total commitment. "The other 14 hours a day are not out
of training," Thanou says. "When you sleep, what you eat, what
your time is like off the track--you have to do it all the way,
think about it all the way. No shopping, no friends."

Neither she nor Tzekos nor Kenteris reveals anything more
specific about their training. Since Thanou won the silver in
Sydney, she has constantly been asked for help by other Greek
runners. What does she tell them? "Not all the truth," she says.
"I tell them what they want to hear."

Such caginess hasn't made the three track figures many friends;
for observers and opponents, the drug-testing AWOLs, the mention
of nutritional supplements, the mere success of white athletes in
the black-dominated sprints are reasons for suspicion. After
losing to Thanou in the '02 European championships, Belgium's Kim
Gevaert claimed that she deserved the gold and asserted, in
regard to drug tests, that Thanou "is always hiding."

At the mention of Tzekos's name, Sevastis lays aside his worry
beads, picks up a pen and slashes thick black marks upon his pack
of cigarettes. In February 1997 Tzekos got into a shoving match
with an official in Dortmund, Germany, who insisted on taking
three of Tzekos's runners, including Thanou, for a random drug
test; the runners left the arena untested. Tzekos says that he
was protecting his athletes, because the official, a man, showed
no identification and was alone. (It's standard for women to
collect the urine samples from women.) SEGAS does not dispute
Tzekos's account, and the IAAF concedes that the tester in
Dortmund did not properly identify himself, but SEGAS banned
Tzekos from coaching for two years.

"Why is it so important for us to talk about this incident?"
Sevastis says. "I would like to focus on the fact that we are
totally allied with the IAAF, totally on their side in the fight
against doping, and to make fully clear that all Greek coaches
and athletes--including Tzekos, Kenteris and anyone else--are
well aware of the rules and forced to comply with them whether
they like it or not."

Tzekos denies that he was ever banned and shrugs off talk of
doping among his athletes. None of his runners have ever tested
positive, he notes. "I follow my philosophy," he says. "If
somebody wants to join me, join me. If somebody doesn't, don't.
But I will do what I have to do, and then we will see who is
right." He finishes with a laugh and a flourish: "I'm not hiding
from anybody. I'm here!"

Kenteris is similarly unapologetic. At 26, after suffering for
years with injuries that resulted, in part, from his right leg
being shorter than his left, he went to Tzekos 10 months before
the Sydney Games and put his career in the coach's hands. Tzekos
insisted that Kenteris stop running the 400, concentrate on the
200 and buy completely into his methods. Still relatively
unknown, Kenteris ran the 200 in a then personal-best 20.09
seconds to beat favorites Ato Boldon and John Capel and win
Olympic gold. He proved it had been no fluke by winning the '01
world championship and then lowering his personal best to 19.85
to take the '02 European championship. Now his every move is
suspect: When Kenteris, citing a thigh injury that not even
Sevastis knew of, pulled out of last summer's world championships
in Paris the day before the qualifying heats, eyebrows were
raised all over the sport.

"Unfortunately, this is a systematic attack against me that
always happens five or 10 days before a big race," Kenteris says
of the suspicions that dog him. "I'm just stating the facts."

He expects no different in Athens. When the Olympics began 28
centuries ago, they consisted of merely one footrace, 190 meters,
contested by men. Kenteris is thus the defending champion of the
oldest event in sports. He goes to the Olympics like no other
athlete, a Greek favorite channeling antiquity and a city's
fears. Like Athens, he's considered suspect. Like Athens, he
feels unduly criticized and may be right, and his enthusiasm has
burned off to reveal something old and hard. "I've wasted so much
time and pain," he says. "I'm so tired from focusing on my goal.
There's no way I'm going to let one person distract me from
getting there. Absolutely no way."

Never discourage anyone ... who continually makes progress, no
matter how slow. --PLATO

The children were on the school bus when they heard about their
father's murder. A radio was playing, someone heard the name
Pavlos Bakoyannis, and then the kids were yelling, "Turn up the
sound! They're talking about Alexia's daddy!" Alexia was 13 then,
Kostas 11--"the worst possible age," says their mother. When she
took the witness stand in April 2003 to testify against the
November 17 members charged with her husband's assassination, the
mayor asked the triggerman why he had committed the crime. "It's
an answer which for years I was waiting for," Dora Bakoyannis
says. But the man wouldn't say.

The confrontation put Bakoyannis back in a familiar position.
Once again it was as if her country's struggle was being written
on her skin. Her father, Constantine Mitsotakis, was an enemy of
the old junta and fled the country with his family in 1967, when
Dora was 13. In 1974, when they returned to Athens, she married
Pavlos Bakoyannis, an antijunta journalist and politician. Her
father was prime minister from 1990 to '93. Dora served as
undersecretary of state and minister of culture, and after Pavlos
was killed she ran for his vacant seat in Parliament and won. In
2002 she bucked Greece's macho tradition and was elected Athens'
first woman mayor, with the biggest majority in city history.
Presiding now over the return of the Olympics, she speaks with
rare authority of a "new, much brighter moment." After all, she
says, "my life was exactly the life of modern Greek history."

As home to nearly half of the nation's population of 10 million,
Athens bears that history's most obvious scars. Planned to
sustain 350,000 people, the city was swamped by two tidal waves
of immigration in the 20th century. The second one, led by poor
Greeks looking for work after World War II, overwhelmed the
capital with automobiles and cheap concrete-box housing. There
was no time to build the necessary highways and subways, the
foundations of ordered urban life. "The city was choked," says
Konstandaras, the newspaper editor, "and it has remained choked."

Plagued by comically regular strikes (the Nov. 13 Kathimerini
reported, "The trial of 19 November 17 suspects--and all other
trials--will be suspended until Monday as Athens lawyers start a
48-hour strike today") and by 15,000 taxis and 5,000 stray dogs,
Athens has been paralyzed for 50 years. The city's past only
shames its present. Athens avoided the happy misfortune of
starting over; no war, fire or earthquake gave its urban
designers a second chance. Plans for mass transit, a new airport
and new highways gathered dust. Then Athens bid for the Olympics.

"Two thousand four is a God-sent crisis," Konstandaras says.
"What we normally do is bicker and analyze. Now things just have
to get done." In a millennia-spanning example of cosmic payback,
the city that gave the world the Olympic Games could well be
saved by them.

"This will bring Athens 20, 30 years forward," says the IOC's
Oswald. "A lot of work has been done under the pressure of the
Olympics." By the day of the opening ceremonies, Aug. 13, Athens
will have completed--or nearly completed--a new subway system
that carries 530,000 passengers daily; a 20-mile suburban railway
that extends to the new international airport; 130 miles of new
and upgraded roads, including a new highway that runs from
airport to city and a congestion-busting ring road; and a new
17-mile tramway system that opens Athens to the sea for the first
time in five decades. Trying to install so much infrastructure
while undertaking 18 refurbishing or building projects in a city
so crowded has been about as easy as taking needle and thread to
a buzzing beehive. Nobody's happy, but even severe critics can't
deny the obvious.

"It will change Athens forever," says deputy minister of culture
Nassos Alevras.

It has been 48 years since a country this small has hosted a
Summer Games, and the Greeks have spent the past six on the
defensive. Still, there's no ignoring the city's new vitality and
hint of cockiness. In 2000 the Greek government and the Athens
2004 organizing committee commissioned an intricate
glass-and-steel roof designed by Spanish architect Santiago
Calatrava for the main Olympic Stadium. The only structure of
architectural significance being built for the Games, the $250
million Calatrava roof is extravagant, unnecessary and absolutely
key to the Olympics' success. If completed, it will be one of the
gorgeous signature shots seen on TV every night. If not, it will
symbolize the Greeks' inability to overcome their worst qualities
at the moment of truth--and, "of course, it will be the end of my
career," says Alevras, who is charged with delivering the roof.

Alarmed by delays, in 2001 the IOC recommended disposing of the
Calatrava altogether, and as late as October it was asking for
contingency plans in case the roof wasn't finished on time. But
the Greeks, prodded by Beijing's ambitious architectural plans
for 2008, insisted on going ahead. In September construction of
the roof had progressed to the point that it couldn't be stopped
without jeopardizing the readiness of the entire stadium. Alevras
found worries about the roof invading even his dreams, but he
wasn't alarmed. "I'm not like the little girl in the red hood
walking in the woods without being afraid of the wolf," he says.
"I would be a fool to say this will be ready without knowing it."
In November he declared that the Calatrava would be ready by the
end of May, two weeks ahead of schedule.

The effect of all this won't be understood for years. Some claim
that because of the city's physical upgrade the very thinking of
Athenians will be altered, that Greeks will become more
efficient, less myopic. Bakoyannis's notions aren't so lofty; she
doesn't, as she puts it, dream of a new Parthenon for the city.
"Athens is a lady who is 60 years old," Bakoyannis says. "She
needs a lifting."

Her realism is hard-earned, of course. Bakoyannis knows that the
Games will probably be neither a clean success nor a resounding
failure, and that something may go very wrong. But she is also
living proof that the so-called Greek mentality includes a
formidable durability, a sense of destiny, an ability to move on.
She was in the courtroom with her children on the day that the
guilty verdict against the November 17 terrorists was announced.
"Everybody asked me if I felt ... happy," she says. "No. A
verdict cannot bring back the people you lost."

A day later Bakoyannis was sitting in her office, with photos of
her children facing her on the desk, and behind her a picture of
her first husband and another photo showing her second husband. A
cluster of worry beads lay untouched by her hand. She spoke about
how monstrous the terrorists had grown in her mind, if only
because of the important people--her husband, the U.S.
ambassador, a British general--they had killed. The guilty never
responded to her question, but she studied them as they sat in
court, took in their sparse hair and cheap shoes and got the only
answer there will ever be.

"It was a very big shock," she said, "to realize that those
people were so small."

Hope is a waking dream. --ARISTOTLE

Then there's the ideal. It's alive, barely perhaps, but enough to
allow one to imagine an Olympics free from attack, drug busts and
transportation snafus, free of the drumbeat of war. God knows,
the Olympic "movement"--if such a thing still exists--could use
an untainted Games. That alone would be a success; that alone
would guarantee that just as the Olympics rejuvenated Athens, the
reverse was also true. But it wouldn't be enough. The Olympic
ideal never meant mere efficiency or safety. It's about men and
women competing their hardest, losing with grace, stunning
themselves in public. The Olympic ideal is always embodied by the
hero you'd never heard of before. "Do you know about Spiridon
Louis?" Nikos Polias asks.

In 1896 Athens hosted the first modern Olympics, and they were
nearly a national embarrassment. Of the 311 athletes entered, 230
were Greek, yet day after day passed in the track and field
competition without the home country winning a thing. The
marathon would be the first ever run on the fabled route of
Phidippides. On the eve of the race, so the story goes, a
desperate public offered up prizes for any Greek man who won:
cattle, sheep, clothing and groceries for life, 2,000 pounds of
candy. One of Athens' wealthiest men dangled his daughter and a
$2 million dowry. Of the 17 men who lined up to race, the
24-year-old Louis was the most lightly regarded. A last-minute
addition to the field who had never run a marathon, he has been
described as a shepherd, a soldier, a man who sold water to
thirsty Athenians from a cart. He wore shoes donated by his
neighbors in the village of Marusi.

Louis won by seven minutes. When he ran into Panathinaikon
Stadium, the crowd of 70,000 screamed in surprise, "A Greek!"
Prince George and Crown Prince Constantine trotted alongside
Louis, a royal escort to the finish line. Already married, Louis
rejected the $2 million bride and, by one account, requested only
a new cart for hauling water. His first marathon was also his

Polias had that one waking dream with Phidippides. He wants one
more, but this time with the Greek hero who didn't die at the end
of the race. This will be Polias's first, and probably last,
Olympic marathon. He missed the last two because of injuries, and
at 32 years old he would be nobody's choice to win a medal in the
Athens marathon, the final event of the Games. The world record
is 2:04:55; Polias ran faster than ever in 2003, but his personal
best is 2:13:53. He is not great, but he is the best Greece has,
and he possesses certain advantages.

Because it is based on history, not convenience, the ancient
course is one of the most difficult in the world. From the sixth
mile on, it rises punishingly for nearly 16 miles, demanding a
canny marshaling of resources, rewarding experience. No one has
run it faster than 2:11.07. No one knows the ancient course
better than Polias. His first coach trained on it for years,
filling Polias with so much detail that even during his first run
it felt familiar. He has raced it 10 times, more than any other
elite runner, and knows every grade, bump and meter. "I'm running
in my living room," he says. Athens' notorious heat and humidity?
"That's my weapon."

The inspiration, of course, will be in everything he sees, even
in himself. Polias points out that his first name, Nikolaos,
translates as "victory of the people"; his surname matches that
of the goddess Athena Polias, protector of the city, Zeus's
favorite. "I feel very responsible for the marathon because it
comes from our history," Polias says. "We, the Greek runners,
have to serve it. I will give everything."

He is driving his car on the way to Piraeus now, skimming over
roads narrowed by the tram construction, past the Olympic beach
volleyball venue, past an unfinished stadium. "All night,
everywhere," he says of the construction. "We suffer. But it's

Polias is ill-equipped to look at these Olympics in terms of one
race: His girlfriend is a racewalker and will compete this
summer. Polias has a mechanical engineering degree and owns a
software company, and one of his brothers is a philosophy
student. Yes, for him to run into Panathinaikon Stadium first and
alone on Aug. 29 would be the ideal ending for Greece's Olympics,
a baton passed from 776 B.C. to 1896 to now. But it can't end

"O.K., the past is good, but now we have to do something for the
future," Polias says. "It's not enough to say we were the
motherland of philosophy and all those human and Olympic ideals,
to just say, 'We were, we were, we were.' We have to do something
more. We have to give something more to the world."

What that is, he doesn't know. How to do it, he doesn't know.
Polias can say only that Athens "will be a new city" after the
Olympics, and he doesn't realize that this in itself is a start.
The very old usually don't get second chances, but the undeniable
result of these unpredictable Games is the most unlikely of all.
The gods are laughing. Slowly, Athens rises.

COLOR PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: PHOTOGRAPH BY BOB MARTIN; BACKGROUND PHOTO BY REPORTER IMAGES/DPPI/ICON SMI/GIANNI DAGLI ORTI/CORBIS RACE TO THE FINISH Like Kenteris (foreground, winning the 200-meter gold in Sydney), Athens will have to win over a host of skeptics in August.