The Olympics returned home Friday in an epic welcome that many once believed Athens could not muster: venues completed after serious delays, security
bolstered amid terrorist fears and the world's greatest athletes assembled at the site of the Games' rebirth 108 years ago.
But the pride and relief of Greek organizers was tempered by a doping scandal that could threaten the country's biggest track stars.
Under a new weblike stadium canopy -- bolted into place only last month -- the modern heirs of the Olympics hope to make the world forget the bumpy
road to the opening ceremony and reset the clock to begin ticking down 16 days of competition.
A sign of the unprecedented policing measures floated overhead: a blimp outfitted with supersensitive spyware. Outside the 72,000-seat stadium were
marks of the last-minute work: expanses of dirt, idle construction cranes and trees planted only last week.
Even the Olympic organizers could joke about it now. A short film shown in the stadium -- showing workers zipping around at high speed -- poked fun at
the race to finish.
An International Olympic Committee member who helped oversee the preparations noted how much was at stake.
"I think you have saved Greece and saved the IOC from great humiliation," Alex Gilady told Athens organizers.
But things are just getting started.
A doping investigation has snared Greek heroes from the Sydney Games: 200-meter champion Kostas Kenteris and 100-meter silver medalist Katerina
Kenteris had been considered the favorite to light the Olympic cauldron. Instead he and Thanou were hospitalized with minor injuries following a
motorcycle accident. The mishap came after the two were accused of evading a drug test, and they might miss the games.
Greek taxpayers are also starting to tally up the worrisome bill. Officials say the games will exceed $7.2 billion, and some analysts say it could hit
a staggering $12 billion, including a record $1.5 billion for security.
The big-budget show promises to run from reverent tradition to Las Vegas-style pageantry.
Hundreds of drummers will march into the stadium, pounding to the rhythm of a heartbeat, according to organizers. The infield -- flooded with 2.1
million liters of water to symbolize Greece's connection to the sea -- will be hit by a fireball to light the five-ring Olympic symbol.
Then a boy on a replica of a child's paper boat will sail out into the arena waving a small Greek flag.
In another segment, a centaur -- the mythological half-man, half- horse -- tosses a javelin that begins the rise of a statue representing an ancient
form from Greece's Cyclades islands. The form breaks apart to reveal other figures from Greek history.
The ancient god of love, Eros, flies above two lovers dancing and playing in the water. Later, a series of allegories about ancient Greece will end
with a pregnant woman entering the water to send aloft a glowing representation of the universe and the DNA double-helix.
Spectators will participate in the main ceremony by clapping and using flashlights and bells when signaled. The Icelandic singer Bjork was one of the
The main part of the ceremony is "an allegoric journey of the evolution of human consciousness ... from the mythological perception of the world to
the logical," said Dimitri Papaioannou, the concept creator of the ceremony.
The parade of nations also will have a distinct Athens stamp.
Greece, because of its links to the ancient games, will enter first, as usual. But, as the host nation, Greek athletes will also be the last into the
stadium in the biggest procession in Olympic history.
Among the 10,500 athletes under 202 flags: the debut appearance of competitors from the sprinkling of Pacific atolls known as Kiribati, and the return
of Afghanistan after an eight-year absence, with Afghan women for the first time.
"So here we are. Little Greece is just a breath away from the miracle," wrote columnist Giorgos Karelias in the Eleftherotypia newspaper. "Here is
little Greece that -- after being stabbed in the back by supposed well-wishers or simply the uninformed -- has gone to receiving praise at the 11th
But Greece is lapping it up.
For the hosts, the Olympics represent a chance to confront the deep inferiority complex that shades many aspects of life. The underdog feeling was
reinforced by the serious Olympic delays, which led the IOC in 2000 to warn organizers that the games were in jeopardy.
But, all along Greek officials continually described the Olympics as a way to shed the country's reputation as a parochial and unruly corner of the
European Union. The transport minister even said drivers' respect for Olympic lanes shows Greece can be "civilized."
The Olympic deadlines have forced projects long taken for granted in other European capitals: highways around city centers, a serious subway and rail
network and efforts to preserve architectural landmarks.
"No country has been more underrated than Greece," said the chief organizer, Gianna Angelopoulos-Dasalaki.
In the stadium, she proclaimed: "Greece is standing before you. We are ready ... We have waited long for this moment. Olympic Games, welcome home."