Greece gripped by Olympics fever“The Field of Heroes” is what they call the plains of Marathon, which is 40 kilometers east from Athens. As legend has it, Greek soldier Pheidippides ran through the plains to deliver the news of the Greeks’ victory over the Persians, then dropped dead. The 2004 Olympic Games, which will take place Aug. 13 to 29, will reprise this historic run, but with a much more joyful conclusion.
To get a sense of what runners would have to face next month, we followed the route earlier this month by car.
The race promises to not only be long but hot. The temperature was already 31 degrees Celsius, with oppressive humidity, when we left the starting point at 10 a.m. At 2 or 3 p.m., it was 37 to 38 degrees, exceeding one’s body temperature. Strong sunlight burned the back of our necks, yet the color of the sky was a deceivingly cool blue.
Two days later, we walked around the same place around 6 p.m., but it was still hot, around 30 degrees. Since the sun doesn’t go down until 9 p.m., the asphalt heated up the soles of our shoes.
Most of the course was still under construction. The two-lane road was being expanded to four. Marathona Stadium, the starting point, was almost done, with the pole used to the flags of participating countries still wrapped in plastic.
“There has been good progress for the last month, and people have been working hard,” said a local guide.
It’s hard to believe that the peaceful plains were once used as a battleground for the Greco-Persian Wars. Timbos, the tombs of 192 heroes who died during the war, has been quietly sleeping for 2,500 years, surrounded by olive trees.
Eight kilometers later on the course, and we finally hit some shade. But there was another hazard: The strong wind from Aegean Sea kicked dust and sand, which made it hard to see and breathe.
From the 10-kilometer point, it started to get hilly, with a thick pine tree forest on both sides. We passed by a Korean tire ad, which could provide an extra boost to Korean marathoners, along with the pine trees, which might remind them of home. In the Olympics, Lee Bong-joo, the veteran marathoner of Korea, will run his last race in Athens.
Past the 25-kilometer point, in the Rafina region, shops began to appear. After 38 kilometers, the course hits downtown Athens, where it ends at Panathinaiko Stadium, which held the first modern Olympics in 1896.
Georgios Georgountzos, an official with the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said Panathinaiko Stadium was chosen as the finish line as an homage to the genuine spirit of the Olympics, when there were no commercialism and drug scandals.
Winning Euro 2004 fires up an already-excited country
Anna, a Korean translator for the Greek soccer team, apologized on the phone for not being able to respond to my call. It hasn’t been easy for reporters to cover the Greek soccer team, which will face the Korean national team in the opening game of the Olympics.
Many Greek players on the national team have been busy because of the Euro 2004, which recently ended with the Greeks winning the championship.
The night when the Greek national team beat Portugal in the finals, no one at the main office of the Greek Soccer Association picked up the phone.
The day after the game, most staff members were out welcoming the players and throwing parties, one after another. The next morning, the entire staff left the office for a party the night before.
The entire country of Greece was partying, it seemed.
After the game, downtown Athens was filled with cars honking, music playing and people celebrating, toasting their wine glasses until late at night in bars for three days in a row.
It’s provided added fuel to the Olympics-generated momentum. Panos Javaras, 21, a hotel manager in the Placa area, said the Games has “brought a thunder storm to the mundane life of the ordinary people in Athens.”
Before the Euro 2004 final, many Athens residents didn’t feel the need to panic about the incomplete main stadium. One laid-back taxi driver said, “One can still run without the stadium ceilings.”
Many Greeks, however, are going from “slow mode” to “Olympics mode” now that the tournament is over. They are determined to enhance the country’s image by setting the global standard in an international sports event.
Jin Woo-yeong, an assistant manager of Jeil Communication who is in charge of marketing for Samsung Electronics, said there had been many cases in the past where the Greek Olympics committee has abruptly asked for changes at the last minute about certain agreements that had been already written in the contract.
“But that will change now,” he said.
Tanos Beremis, a professor of political history at Athens University, said the Greeks are looking forward to the Olympics since the conclusion of the Euro 2004.
Athens received extra funding to build new roads, subway lines and airports for the Olympics, Mr. Beremis said, which will benefit Athens outside of promoting the city’s image.
Greeks are more aware of Korea. About 10 percent of the automobiles in downtown Athens were manufactured in Korea. Some Greeks troops also fought in the Korean War in 1950.
Pandelis, the owner of Red Lion, a 33-year-old bar right next to the Hilton Hotel, says many staff members from large Korean shipping companies such as Hyundai and Samsung visit her place.
Greeks fought in the Korean War before, she said, and now South Korea is a modern, developed country.
The bar owner said that the Seoul Olympics and the country’s good showing in the 2002 World Cup have given South Koreans confidence and that the Greeks want that for themselves as well.
Athens’ Koreans getting ready for tourist wave
Athens is a special opportunity for the Korean community there as well.
As most hotels and decent accommodations in downtown Athens have already been booked, many Koreans in Athens are offering their rooms for a bed-and-breakfast-type stay.
Ahn Heon-gi, a former representative of Korean association in Greece, says he will open up the rooms in his house for Korean visitors to the Olympics.
Choi Jae-hwan, a Samsung Electronics project manager, has high hopes for his work.
“We are proudly working to upgrade the status of this Olympics with high-tech wireless communications,” he says. “We are expecting that our efforts in Greece to build a bridge to a European market.”
Samsung Electronics, an official sponsor of wireless communications for the Athens Olympics, is providing 14,000 of its latest-model mobile phones to International Olympic Committee members, under the slogan “The Olympics you can feel under your finger.”
The phone allows IOC members to get up-to-date information about all the events and mini-biographies of Olympics players.
The project, titled “Wireless Olympics Works,” has been specially developed by Samsung engineers for the event.
by Kim Jong-moon