The 2004 summer Olympics open in the Greek capital, Athens, on August 13 after seven years of often-chaotic preparations.
As the International Olympic Committee’s top inspector, Swiss lawyer Denis Oswald has been keeping a close eye on the proceedings ahead of the world’s biggest sporting event.
The media has reported on a number of occasions that Athens might have to forgo hosting the event after construction work was repeatedly delayed.
“Athens was facing one of the biggest challenges of the modern Olympics,” Oswald told swissinfo. “Greece is the smallest nation to host the Games.”
The Greek capital, unlike many previous host cities, has had to build or refurbish its infrastructure, including major roads, a subway, modern telecommunications systems and even the electrical grid.
Fifty-seven-year-old Oswald is a lawyer, a judge at the Court of Arbitration for Sport, head of the International Centre for Sports Studies in Neuchâtel and teaches at Neuchâtel University.
He is also president of the International Rowing Federation, and as such is a member of the IOC.
For the past three years, he has been the IOC coordinator for the Athens Games after taking over from the organisation’s president, Jacques Rogge.
“It was Rogge’s decision, as new IOC president, to ask me to look after Athens,” said Oswald.
He asked for two days to think it over – and finally said ‘yes’ after two minutes. His only fear was that he would not have enough time to carry out his mission.
His untidy office overlooking Lake Neuchâtel is a testament to the heavy workload associated with the Games. Oswald has travelled to Greece more than 25 times in the past three years.
Every six months, he has headed up an official inspection tour, advising the Greeks on what needed to be improved.
On his last trip in May, he was finally able to hand in a good scorecard when the roof of the 55,000-seat Olympic stadium slid into place. But until then, there had been plenty of worries for Oswald.
“The IOC Athens commission has been in touch regularly with the last two Greek governments,” he said. “We had to make them realise that their image as the birthplace of the Games could suffer.”
Oswald also sent out warnings via the media, putting pressure on the organisers to complete preparations. But he was equally meticulous about handing out praise when praise was due.
“You have to be a bit diplomatic so people don’t lose their motivation,” he told swissinfo. “The Greeks have managed to complete their preparations in just four years, instead of the usual seven.”
The Swiss lawyer is still concerned about security and won’t relax until the last athlete crosses the finish line. “For the IOC, security and the risk of terrorist attacks are the biggest worries,” he added.
Oswald, a former Olympic rower, has vivid memories of the Palestinian hostage taking of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Games in Munich. After his event, he had planned to stay on and watch some of the other competitions.
But the killing of the Israelis changed all that. “I headed straight for home after that,” explained Oswald.
He says an attack at the Athens Games would spell the end of the event. But while he admits there no such thing as “zero risk”, he adds that security has never been as tight since the September 11 attacks.
Around 70,000 people are looking after security at the Games, including Nato soldiers. The cost to keep the land, sea and sky free of trouble is around €1 billion (SFr1.5 billion).
“Now you know why I have trouble sleeping at night,” says Oswald.
swissinfo, Mathias Froidevaux and Philippe Kropf (translation: Scott Capper)
The Athens summer Games are the 28th Olympiad.
They run from August 13 to August 29.
Twenty-eight sports will be on display in 28 venues.
Around 10,500 sportsmen and women are expected to participate.
Another 5,500 officials will attend.
Around 21,500 media representatives have received accreditation for the Games.
70,000 people will look after security.
Denis Oswald, born in 1947 in Neuchâtel, was a member of the Swiss rowing team from 1968 to 1976, and was national champion 13 times.
He took part in three Olympic Games: Mexico (1968), Munich (1972) and Montreal (1976).
He has been a member of the IOC since 1991 and in 2001 was appointed coordinator for the Athens Games.
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