Athens throws a party to celebrate successful games


ATHENS, Greece, AP

If anyone deserved a party, it was the people of Athens.

The flame went out on the Olympics during a closing ceremony Sunday night that honored the birthplace of the games with an ebullient display of Greek pride and symbolism, a relief filled celebration of the ancient and the new.

Famed Greek singer George Dalaras serenaded the crowd. Dancers danced, arms folded, legs kicking high, during an enactment of a traditional Greek wedding. Fireworks exploded over the stadium packed full with 70,000 fans who waved twinkling strobes they were given to light up the show.

Hundreds of athletes from many of the 202 countries that participated mingled in the center of the stadium and they paraded their flags — Canadian and Swiss, American and Brazilian — around the floor. They were ringed by a cadre of security guards, and a white security blimp hovered over head, a couple of the many strong reminders of how much the world has changed since the Sydney Games four years ago.

Later, the huge white torch that burned brightly over the stadium for 17 days was lowered and symbolic remnants of the flame were passed to the people of Beijing, where the games will be held in 2008.

China’s capital city put on a short ceremony filled with a preview of what’s to come. Chinese string instruments played and red-clad martial arts performers romped around the stage. Elaborately clad women wearing headdresses walked out on stilts. A giant, red lantern popped up and, while a young Chinese girl sang, a banner was unfurled that said “Welcome to Beijing.”

China will have to put on quite a show to match Greece, a poor country that spent US$8.5 billion to bring the games back to their home, and often wondered if the effort was worth it.

“The world discovered a new Greece,” said Athens 2004 president Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, who made it all happen with her fierce determination to overcome construction delays and avoid international humiliation.

The three-week festival of sports that was tumultuous, as expected, but not for the reasons most people anticipated.

Athens put the finishing touches on its games with only days remaining — paint really was still drying in places when the torch was lit. But the city put on a fantastic — and safe — show, much to the surprise of skeptics who fretted over the country’s readiness and security issues almost from the day it was awarded the games.

While Greece shined, the athletes, delegations and even the fans were nowhere near as well-behaved.

These games were marred by doping scandals, booing in the stands and protests by the teams. The misbehavior extended right to the very end, when a fan jumped out of the crowd and tackled Brazilian marathoner Vanderlei de Lima. He recovered, and finished third.

“I think the Olympic spirit prevailed, and I prevailed,” de Lima said during a news conference, held in the bowels of the stadium while the ceremony rocked on above.

The complaints came in no fewer than six sports, most notably in gymnastics, where South Korea’s protest of American Paul Hamm’s all-around gold medal became one of a handful of unsavory stories that dominated the games. Disgraced Greek sprint stars Kostas Kenteris and Katerina Thanou also played a role, and a record two dozen athletes were caught on doping cases.

On Sunday, though, it was time to celebrate the Olympic spirit and the Olympic hosts that held the first games in 776 B.C., and resurrected the modern-day version in 1896.

Athens was only one of the sites. The games also made a cameo appearances in Olympia to watch the shot put, and to Marathon to stand on the spot where the race got its name.

Mia Hamm was the U.S. flagbearer during this, the last of three medal-winning appearances for her at the Olympics. The U.S. women’s soccer team won one of the 103 medals for the Americans, surpassing the U.S. Olympic Committee’s goal of 100 and easily outdistancing Russia, which finished second with 92 medals.

China was third with 63, and the Chinese are already gearing up their Olympic efforts, planning to lead the world when the games are in their home.

In his closing remarks, International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge lauded Athens, a city that came close to having the games taken away because of massive construction delays.

“You have won,” Rogge said. “You have won by brilliantly meeting the tough challenge of holding the games. These were unforgettable, dream games.”

At the end, a chorus of popular Greek singers serenaded the crowd and 150,000 balloons were sent skyward. While the music blared, silver, blue and white confetti rained down as the athletes headed for the exits, saying goodbye to an Olympics that were spectacular and memorable, just like the city that hosted them.