Monday, August 30, 2004 at 8:27 AM

The load out

The curtain came down last night on the dream Games, as IOC President Jacques Rogge characterised them. He's not wrong. The general consensus is that Athens did a fantastic job.

It's business as usual in Athens this morning, but for those of us who have been here as visitors the last stories have now been filed and the cameras are packed in their cases for the trip home.

In the words of Jackson Browne:
Now the seats are all empty
Let the roadies take the stage
Pack it up and tear it down
They're the first to come and last to leave
Working for that minimum wage
They'll set it up in another town ...

And that other town will be Beijing in four years time.

Until then ...

Saturday, August 28, 2004 at 7:22 PM

Defining the Games

Yesterday was a day of strange contrasts. I spent most of the day at the taekwondo watching people trying to kick the daylights out of each other, raced over to the handball in the middle of the day to catch Croatia v Hungary in their semi-final and then back to the taekwondo in time to see the Australian Carlo Massimino miss out on a bronze medal playoff.

By this time it was about 5.30, so I headed back to the University of Athens intending to drop my gear and grab a taxi in to the city to try and catch the show at the Odeon Herodes Atticus. The odeon is a beautifully restored ampitheatre in the shadow of the Acropolis, built in the Roman period around 145AD. It's regularly used for light and sound shows of all types. Last night saw the Athens State Orchestra performing extracts from the Carmen Suite and Carmina Burana. I usually prefer my music with a backbeat in 4/4 or 2/4 but this was the only selection on offer, and I've got to say it was pure magic. I was happy to pay 25 euros for the pleasure.

The contrast between watching the fighting in a modern stadium during the day and then listening to a full symphony orchestra with the Macedonia choir at a 1,900 year-old ampitheatre at night would have been disorienting if it wasn't so captivating. It sort of defines the Athens Olympics in my mind.

The acoustics at the Odeon Herodes Atticus are incredible. You can imagine the Greek comedies and tragedies being heard with perfect clarity way up in the cheap seats. There were about 4,500 people at last night's performance and every note was perfectly audible from every point in the ampitheatre, and there wasn't a single microphone anywhere in the place.

The only drawback was that each time the orchestra played a quiet passage you could hear the tooting of horns down in the plaka and the rev of a motorcycle engine off in the distance, which kind of spoiled the dramatic effect. But the musicians didn't flinch, I guess they're used to it. It's the price they pay for playing in such an incredible setting.

View of the Parthenon from the Odeon Herodes Atticus

Seeing the wood for the trees

One of the problems with being at an event like the Olympics is that you don't actually get as good a view of all the action as you do if you are sitting at home watching TV. Racing from one venue to another, trying to work out the intricacies of one sport one day, another the next - scoring details, personalities, histories etc - means you rarely get a chance to see what happened in other arenas. It's not a complaint, mind you, simply an observation.

But it's not confined to sport.

Went in to the Plaka area last night to watch a show and have a meal. Running late coming from the taekwondo, dropped the laptop off at the media village and jumped into a cab for what is usually a 15 minute ride to the Acropolis.

Forty-five minutes later, twenty minutes after the show at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus had begun, the taxi pulled into laneway at the foot of the Acropolis.

The centre of the city was blocked off which meant taking a wide detour around Syntagma Square and the parliament building. Although we'd had some warning of demonstrations ahead of Colin Powell's visit to Athens this weekend, the taxi driver swore (and how) it was just a car accident that had caused the street blockage.

Yeah, right!

It was a bit more than that.

Sure, it was nothing too serious in the scheme of Greek political demonstrations, but any street marches were always going to get the heavy handed treatment in these couple of weeks.

Friday, August 27, 2004 at 7:41 PM

Hardly working

Greece's 7,000 licensed prostitutes are down in the dumps over a slump in business that comes just as they were expecting a boom for the Games.

The profession that's older even than the Olympics hit an unexpected slump during the last couple of weeks. Athens' sex workers have reported none of the extra business they were anticipating with the influx of visitors to the city. In Sydney a reported 10,000 prostitutes worked overtime to meet the demand. But according to Dimitra Kanellopolou, head of the Greek prostitutes' movement, Athenian call girls have not seen the slightest increase in demand for their services.

Prostitution is legal in Greece, but only in highly regulated state-licensed brothels. The regulations are getting tighter and it looks as though the pre-Olympic manoeuvres by Ms Kanellopolou and her movement failed to pay off for the girls.

Thursday, August 26, 2004 at 8:43 PM

Site for sore eye

For a one-eyed sports fan the final days of the Games carry a promise of withdrawal - cold turkey after the feast of pool, track, field, various courts of different dimensions, and of course the beach volleyball.

As the Games move towards Sunday night's closing ceremony, some events have already finished and others are at the semi-final or gold medal play-off stage. Gaps are starting to appear in the schedule, so Cyclops took advantage of a lull today for a quick lunchtime sightseeing tour around old Athens with the particular aim of seeing the Agora, the heart of ancient Athens.

You can't come to Athens and not see the Parthenon or the Stoa of Attalos or the Temple of Hephaestus.

So here it is.

The Temple of Hephaestus, the best preserved of the ancient Greek temples, with the Stoa of Attalos in the background.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004 at 6:57 PM

What did you say?

There's nothing like European polylingual skills to make us monolingual Aussies feel a little inferior. If English wasn't the lingua franca at an event like the Olympics most of us would be ... well ... stuffed is probably the best way to put it.

But at official press conferences efforts are made to accommodate a range of languages out of professional courtesy, if not practicality. It makes for an interesting show. Questions and answers can be translated up to four times into either English, French, Greek, German, Spanish or Russian.

With so much talking going on there's often little time for medal winners to actually say anything. Which is exactly what happened on Tuesday night after the women's sprint in track cycling.

The conference moderator's introduction of the three athletes was translated into three languages. Ten minutes later the translations were finished and the moderator gave Canadian gold medallist Lori-Ann Muenzer the nod.

"Sorry," Muenzer said. "What was the question?"

Opening statements from each medallist were translated into four languages, which took about eight more minutes. Then the floor was open. Muenzer answered a question, and the translators started translating again. Five minutes later the moderator called the conference closed.

Hardest working man on the sand

There's been a party going on each day at one of the Olympic stadiums, and it's not at the pool or the athetics stadium. It's virtually a separate Games, an outpost where one of the newest olympic sports has been quietly - or not so quietly - generating full houses while some of the more high profile events struggled.

The purists turn up their noses, but the people love beach volleyball.

Like a little brother or sister who has to make a lot of noise to be noticed, the beach volleyball has turned on a loud, proud show full of noise, colour and great athleticism.

When the swimming was the main attraction in week one, beach volleyball was the second hottest ticket in town, and the best kept secret.

The swimmers may have left the pool, but they're still partying at the Faliro beach volleyball stadium, culminating in tonight's gold medal match between Brazil and Spain with Australia vying for a bronze medal earlier in the evening.

It's a rock 'n 'roll circus with a multilingual MC. The players go at it for 45 minutes, but the MC pumps out his schtick all night. He's definitely the hardest working man on the sand.

"All the people from Australia clap your hands."

"All the people from Brazil, clap your hands."

"All the people from Greece ..." Say no more.

He's an MC, DJ, crowd warm-up man (despite the August heat in Athens), and conductor of Mexican waves, but he reserves a special level of enthusiasm for "show time".

Show time is when the Spanish cheerleaders take centre stage during the player introductions, at timeouts and between sets.

The crowd might be there for the sport, but they all love these 12 bikini-clad dancers.

It's fast. The dives (digs) are spectacular, the ball handling skills impressive. The music is loud, the girls are pretty, and the view of the Meditteranean as the sun sets through the stand in the evening is just an added bonus.

It's showtime

Cheerleaders get the crowd in a party mood at the beach volleyball.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004 at 9:40 AM

No holds barred

Cyclops has been watching the women's freestyle wrestling, admittedly with some tawdry fascination, and has got to thinking: why do they do it?

That thought didn't last long. They may be small, but they're very tough.

Women are wrestling for the first time at the these Games and attracting a fair bit of attention.

So here's an opportunity for a did-you-know moment

Wrestling, or the combination of boxing and wrestling, was the bloodiest sport in the ancient arena - it was also the most lucrative for the athletes.

The winner was always the last man standing, and often the only one left alive after a match. There were some notable exceptions, like the case of Arrhacion. In 564BC, competing in the Pankration - which was sort of like ultimate fighting - Arrhacion was legally strangled to death. Just before he died he managed to break his opponent's ankle with a well aimed kick. His opponent, not realising the slight advantage he had gained, surrendered, whereupon the judges propped Arrhacion's body up and awarded him the winner's wreath.

Monday, August 23, 2004 at 8:19 AM

Badminton MTV-style

In Seoul, Imsil and Gokseong you could imagine they were already celebrating a medal, gold or silver. That's the beauty of dominating competition so completely. Korea v Korea, they couldn't lose.

Boring you say? Not on your life. These guys put on a mighty impressive display.

At the all-Korean gold medal match in the men's badminton doubles, about 300 enthusiastic supporters on court number 1 at the Goudi Olympic Complex cheered on the world number two pair Ha Tae Kwon and Kim Dong-Moon in their play-off against their number nine ranked opponents, Lee Dong-Soo and Yoo Yong Sung.

The Koreans and Chinese are the current masters at badminton, with honourable mentions to Indonesia and Malaysia where it is a national sport, and (perhaps surprisingly) Denmark which has two pairs ranked in the world top five.

It's super fast. The shuttlecocks move at up to 260km per hour, and the athletes need lightning-quick reactions and terrific flexibility. This is a power game with a featherweight projectile, a sport that requires great strength, agility and deftness of touch. It is no game for cissies.

The court is laid out like a miniature tennis court, 13.4m long with the referee seated in a raised chair at the net and line judges ringing the match area. Scoring follows a system not unlike table tennis: a change of service every three serves, each serve worth one point. The winner is the first player, or pair, to reach 15 points.

Over the sounds of slamming shoes and racqets they grunted, they yelled, they punched the air. They shouted "Hiy-a! Hiy-a!" and gave each other low fives on winning a point. A pat on the bum here, a small victory air-punch there; a nod of exhortation to the other partner; glares across the net at the opposition. The Koreans stalked the court between serves in a familiar style. In fact, it looked like a condensed version of a Grand Slam tennis match with all the intensity you would expect from a Wimbledon final.

The recurring theme song belting over the PA between match points was The Pretenders Brass in Pocket. A none-too-subtle nod perhaps at the earning potential these athletes have at home. If Thorpie can command millions in endorsements one can only wonder what the potential for Korea's badminton champions might be.

The gold medal went to the top ranked pair, Ha Tae Kwon and Kim Dong-Moon, 15-11/ 15-4. Kim Dong-Moon promptly collapsed to his knees mid-court and Ha Tae Kwon did a lap of the court with his shirt pulled up to his armpits and one fist raised in the air. Blur's Song 2 was pumping through the stadium now - whoo hoo, indeed! Welcome the new rock stars of badminton.