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Christie Blatchford

'Dear Greek friends, you have won!'

From Monday's Globe and Mail

Athens — For the past 17 days, the people of this country got down to business as perhaps never before as they sought to prove their small nation could successfully stage the great spectacle — and security nightmare — that is a modern Olympic Games.

They did it, and yesterday Greeks finally let loose with a raucous and exuberant closing ceremony more typical of the national character than the rather stern collective face the world has seen of late.

With a cast of thousands that included traditional dancers, platinum-wigged sirens doing the tsifteteli (an informal belly dance) and modern pop singers, athletes from 201 countries were ushered into the Olympic Stadium for the final time by a percussion orchestra whose instruments were made out of sports equipment.

As the Olympians ran onto the field — among them, carrying Canada's flag, double medalist Adam van Koeverden, who won gold and bronze in kayak racing — the roaring, stomping crowd of 72,000 broke into a spontaneous chant of "Hellas! Hellas! Hellas!" and the party was on.

It closed with a pop concert that saw 230,000 balloons released from the stadium roof, barely cooled after a non-stop show of fireworks.

Greeks have good reason to feel proud. As International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge told them in his brief remarks, "Dear Greek friends — you have won!"

Having vowed to avoid his predecessor's practice of pronouncing each successive Olympics the best-ever — "My vocabulary is richer than that," Mr. Rogge said earlier yesterday — he called the Athens Olympics "the unforgettable Dream Games."

It wasn't much of an overstatement.

The Games of the 28th Olympiad proved a great organizational success, despite months — nay, years — of dire predictions that the facilities would never be ready on time and that the event was too enormous a task for a country of only 10 million people.

As Giannis Natou, a Greek journalist, said with a grin yesterday, only Greeks were never worried "because we know that is how we do things, at the last minute."

Athletes praised the Olympic Village, sports officials found the competition venues terrific (if sometimes, particularly in the early going, eerily empty), buses came and went when they were supposed to, Mr. Rogge pronounced himself "an extremely happy IOC president," the frightful Athens' heat retreated to a tolerable 32 C (sometimes even with a little breeze) and even the legions of cranky journalists could find little to complain about.

Indeed, the spirit of the Athens organizing committee may have been best illustrated by the security, which despite an estimated price tag of upward of $1.2-billion (U.S.) and the thousands of police and military who were involved, remained remarkably low-key.

This may be a function of the fact that Greek police and security officers, whether heavily armed or wearing only walkie-talkies on their belts, were as interested in smoking and flirting as they were in anything else, with the result that one could either pass through a security check, set off every alarm and be thoroughly checked — or be blithely waved through despite the warning buzz.

But if the variations in procedure were disconcerting, the effect was pleasing: In the main, the Games always felt safe, but never oppressive.

The organizing committee bragged that 3.5 million tickets were sold, and certainly attendance visibly improved as events moved past the preliminary stages and the big-draw sports such as track and field began. But at some venues, even for finals, there were still less than capacity crowds.

However, the empty seats shouldn't be taken to mean the Games were not embraced by the people of Athens, the ancient city where local newspaper columnists quote Socrates as casually and as often as their North American counterparts refer to Homer Simpson.

The difficulty is that Athens is a city with not one civic heart — one downtown or central gathering place — but dozens of them, with public squares in almost every neighbourhood and suburb and an unbelievably vibrant café life that saw Olympic enthusiasm diffused far and wide.

During the Games, there were in most areas people on the streets throughout the night, with coffee shops staying open 24 hours and newspaper kiosks and restaurants opening earlier and closing later — most with television sets tuned permanently to Games coverage. And at many subway stops, such as the one in the suburb of Iraklio, there were big-screen TVs set up outside the stations.

And throughout the city, Athenians hung their blue-and-white flag from apartment, car and patio.

The only real fly in the ointment for the hosts was the curious scandal that before competition even began enveloped two of Greece's brightest stars, sprinters Kostas Kederis and Katerina Thanou.

Eventually, the two voluntarily "withdrew" from competition, but not before spinning a largely discredited story about missing a scheduled doping test because of a mysterious motorcycle crash.

The story developed for days on local front pages, embarrassing Greeks and stealing attention away from the fact that predictions to the contrary, everything was actually working — and working well.

Yet Greek athletes went on to win — and keep — 15 medals, including six golds, although one Greek weightlifter was among the five athletes stripped of their medals after positive drug tests.

In total, 23 athletes failed doping, compared to 11 at Sydney four years ago — the result, Mr. Rogge said yesterday, of an enlarged testing period and powers for IOC doping officials.

Drugs weren't the only distraction from sports — there were judging controversies at gymnastics, equestrian and fencing competitions. These are unavoidable, the IOC president said, "because there is a human element and humans can make errors."

But Mr. Rogge distinguished between errors and "manipulation" and said that just as the figure-skating controversy that marred the Salt Lake City Games had led to a revised system, so did he expect that would happen in the three sports dogged by complaints and protests here.

Mr. Rogge is planning a trip soon to Canada, where he plans to remind Prime Minister Paul Martin and the provincial premiers that the IOC likes a host nation's athletes to do well — and that government might want to increase funding to make sure it happens.

At neither the 1976 Montreal Games nor the 1988 Calgary Games did a Canadian athlete win a gold medal.

The news of Mr. Rogge's coming visit was welcomed by Canadian Olympic Committee president Michael Chambers, who said yesterday, "If it takes a visit from [Mr.] Rogge to wake some folks up on Parliament Hill, I'll buy the ticket."

In Athens, Canadians won 12 medals (three gold, six silver and three bronze), short of the 14 from Sydney. And as COC chief executive officer Chris Rudge noted yesterday, no fewer than four reigning Canadian world champions didn't make the podium here.

The four were divers Alex Despatie, who won bronze but not in the event in which he's ranked No. 1, and Emilie Heymans, hurdler Perdita Felicien and the men's eights rowing crew. "Why did that happen?" Mr. Rudge asked.

Half the Canadian medals were won by first-time Olympians such as Mr. van Koeverden, a 22-year-old from Oakville, Ont., who first took a bronze medal in the 1,000-metres before tearing to a gold in the 500-metre sprint on the weekend.

The choice of Mr. van Koeverden as flag-bearer symbolizes the new, tougher face of the COC.

The young man always boldly said he came to Athens not to merely compete but to win, and is clearly the sort of athlete the COC wants to develop.

Where in earlier years, the organization's post-Games press conference was often largely devoted to praising not only the athletes but their performance, whatever it was, Mr. Rudge and the COC's executive director for sports, Mark Lowry, were frank in admitting their disappointment.

As Mr. Lowry said, "How did we do? We didn't do as well as we thought we would."

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