Postcard from Athens: Wish you:or anyone:were here
By Steve Wilstein
AP Sports Columnist
ATHENS, Greece -- Something's missing from the Athens Olympics -- the intangible, critical buzz that makes the Summer Games special.
Tens of thousands of seats are empty every day. There's no grand gathering place for athletes and fans, no pulsating heart of the sprawling scene, and less sheer fun than at any Olympics in the last 20 years.
The main Olympic complex, known as OAKA, is an architectural triumph and a spiritual wasteland, lacking crowds and excitement. The blazing sun offers heat; the emptiness somehow makes it cold.
Stroll a broad walkway in OAKA beneath beautiful white steel arches, bordered by blue reflecting pools and white marble, and you look out on a soothing vista of hills in the distance. In the lowering sun Monday, with Greek music playing on loudspeakers, it's lovely. Yet look around and there aren't many people there to enjoy it, though it's the peak time for fans to be showing up before the night events.
Greek residents have shown their indifference to the games by staying away in droves. Tourism is down because of worries about terrorism. In truth, though, those who are here are not walking around consumed by fear. It's peaceful, secure and dull.
Only one spot in OAKA offers any entertainment -- the Olympic Rendezvous, sponsored by Samsung. Greek TV celebrity Tonia Fouseki, wearing a mike headset, does her best to draw fans each day, beckoning them to enjoy "amazing shows, magicians, live music, dancers." At 5:30 p.m., 12 fans lay on their backs on the wooden pavilion in front of the stage while dancers performed to John Lennon's "Imagine."
Olympic Rendezvous draws up to 500 fans at times during peak hours, just before and after night events. But with no beer, wine or food in the area, there's nothing to hold the crowds.
"Considering the circumstances, people are having some fun," event coordinator Christiana Koulizakis said. "People are dancing and singing, making the best of it. This is the only place they can do that."
OAKA and other Olympic sites could have used more places like the Olympic Rendezvous, which has a lounge upstairs for athletes and their families.
"With all the talk about the last-minute work, trying to get ready, (the organizers) didn't think about the other stuff that really make the games fun," said Alex Brown, who greets visitors at Olympic Rendezvous.
The parents of Australian swimmer Matt Welsh relaxed at the Rendezvous lounge before going to watch their son.
"There's nowhere else to go here," Tricia Welsh said. "We can't get into the athletes' village and he doesn't have the time to go to restaurants near the Acropolis. It's all so spread out. It seems most of the athletes just stay in their rooms when they're not training or competing."
Athens has many wonderful restaurants, but the pickings are slim near Olympic sites. The best at OAKA, believe it or not, is McDonald's, and this big plastic box of a joint is one star below its American counterparts.
In the middle of OAKA are rows of "canteens" selling soft drinks, water, beer, chips, ice cream and yogurt. In front of each row are more rows of red Coca-Cola tables and chairs with umbrellas, several hundred of them weakly resembling European streetside cafes. This should be where people lounge in the early evening or linger after events, listening to the rock music from loudspeakers. Instead the tables are mostly unused even at the busiest times.
Sparsely leafed trees, suffering in the sun from last-minute planting, contribute to the vacant look of the landscape.
With some thought, these soulless, fast-food acres, sitting on bare earth, could have been transformed into a marvelous plaza to bring fans and athletes together. But in the rush to get even the stadium finished, the details that give the games texture were put off.
Sydney had Darling Harbor and the rocking scene around the Opera House and the Rocks, where fans and athletes mingled. Atlanta had Centennial Olympic Park, which pushed the borders of crass commercialism but brought the world together for parties day and night. Barcelona offered the charms of its Ramblas, just a stroll away from the center of the games for the original Dream Team and everyone else.
There's no "there" here in Athens. The Plaka on the edge of the Acropolis, spruced up though it is, is too far away for the athletes. It's busy, but no busier than any other summer.
Except for swimming and men's basketball, where crowds have packed the arena and Greeks loved seeing the Americans lose to Puerto Rico, no big stars, hometown heroes or compelling stories have yet galvanized the games. Attendance has been low at most places, including beach volleyball, so wildly popular in Sydney.
The "crowds" at gymnastics have been so sparse that the arena's background music can be heard, which never happened at other Olympics.
"We attended baseball and it was barren," said Australian John Mifsuv, 23. "I joked to one of my mates that we must've come on the wrong week."
He said the Aussies have been "chasing the vibe" for days with no success.
Sponsors have their private parties. The yachts may be lively. But for the average fan and the athletes, the Athens Games so far have been a multibillion-dollar yawn.
Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at swilstein(at)ap.org