For four hectic years, Athens has been taken apart, cleaned up, rebuilt, planted and replanted, fountained and refountained and generally worked on, with the result that the city is now a true shining example of a 'successful make-over'. With thousands of volunteers of all ages and from all over the Greek diaspora dressed in their colourful orange and blue outfits and standing on every corner - Athens was ready for the world.
We lived in Athens for six years, very near to the Olympic Stadium (in fact we could see into the Stadium from our veranda), but could never have imagined how beautiful the venue could be. The controversial glass roof glitters in the sunshine and, after dark, multi-coloured lights reflect down onto the magnificent artificial lake which welcomes you on arrival. Hosting the Games has now become one of the most expensive and difficult exercises that any country could undertake and Greece is the smallest nation ever to do so.
And how!... on the evening of Friday 13th August the atmosphere was truly magical. Everyone and everything was in place ready for the Opening Ceremony and the return of the Olympic Games to their spiritual home. The show was described by its Artistic Director Dimitris Papaioannou as being a fascinating journey revisiting the centuries of Greek history which gave birth to so many ideas and philosophies that are still so relevant today.
A magnificent pageant unfolded before us with images intended "to express the strides of civilisation". There was the sea on which the circles of flames (the Olympic symbol) made such an impression to everyone who was watching both in the stadium or on television around the world. There was the small boy on his boat waving and immensely happy sailing across this stretch of water, which appeared from nowhere and disappeared as quickly and wondrously after he had reached the other side to stand beside Constantinos Stephanopoulos, President of the Greek Republic, Jacques Rogge, President of the IOC, and the woman who made it all possible, Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, President of the Athens 2004 Organizing Committee, as they raised the flags together.
There was the kouros which became the classical statue which represented the first free citizen of Europe, the beautiful cube representing the symbol of earth, Pythagaros and mathematics, and then maybe the favourite part for me, the Cycladic figurine which transformed into fragments to represent the group of Aegean islands which form a circle around Delos, the island where Apollo the God of Light was born. There was so much to see and enjoy; the winged archer and then a spectacular procession depicting Greece from 2000 BC to the present, all the civilisations - Minoan, Mycanean, geometric period, archaic period and the amazing classical period of Greece with the first Olympic Games through to the modern period and the revival of the Games in 1896 - all so beautifully and artistically portrayed and performed by volunteers who had only met together for the first time a month before.
There was also a very moving message from the international space station wishing for peace and success to the Games. And hardly a dry eye amongst the capacity crowd of 72,000 spectators when Jacques Rogge told us: "Greece, the entire world pays homage to you tonight" and Angelopoulos-Daskalaki ended her short speech with the simple statement: "Olympic Games, Welcome Home"!
The athletes from the 202 nations represented - including Djibuti with only one contestant - then filed in and after being cheered and waved at by the excited audience, they gathered into the circle in the centre of the arena to stand together for the entrance into the stadium of the Olympic Torch (which of course had visited Paros only a few weeks before on its long journey through five continents).
The flame was lit to the sound of great applause and ringing of bells (we were all given a little bell to ring, a very precious memento) as a huge torch, looking like something from space, came down from the far end of the stadium. The torch was lit by the final torch-bearer and the flame was carried upwards to burn and shine high above the crowds, symbolizing the Olympic spirit and signalling the start of the 28th Olympiad in Athens.
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Nikos Kaklamanakis, one of Greece's most popular athletes, was chosen as the final torch bearer (traditionally kept secret until the last moment) and given the honour of lighting the flame in the Olympic Stadium cauldron at the Opening Ceremony.
Nikos won the gold medal for windsurfing in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and is well known and much admired on Paros, visiting the Golden Beach area quite frequently - most recently in June of this year when he was in training for the Athens Games, where he won silver this time.
Greece was ranked overall in 15th place with 6 gold, 6 silver and 4 bronze medals.
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After 17 days of competition, another dazzling extravaganza was held under a full moon at the Athens Olympic Stadium to mark the closing of the Games. A joyous, colourful and exuberant show, some of Greece's greatest and most beloved singers, including Marinella, Haris Alexiou, Georgos Dalaras, Yannis Parios, Eleftheria Arvanitaki, Anna Vissi, Sakis Rouvas and others, joined together to celebrate the success of the Games in music, song and dance.
"These Games were unforgettable, dream Games", Jacques Rogge announced, calling upon the youth of the world to assemble again four years from now in Beijing. Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki thanked the athletes for being "the most powerful source of inspiration and hope for humanity" and told us that "the world discovered a new Greece" through these Games.
In the hand-over ceremony, Dora Bakoyanni, Mayor of Athens, passed the Olympic Flag to Wang Qishan, Mayor of Beijing and a taste of what is to come in 2008 was presented in a short, but spectacular, show by Chinese performers.
As the Olympic flame in the cauldron was extinguished, "blown out" by the child, Fotini, chosen from S.O.S. Villages, the Games were officially over.
If you missed the chance to attend the events, don't forget that another major sporting event is being held in Athens this month from 17th to 28th September - the Paralympic Games. Focusing on the athlete and not on disability, these Games present an elite competition of the highest international standards and world records are comparable with those of Olympic athletes.
Tickets can be purchased online, from ATHENS 2004 ticket offices and branches of Alpha Bank. Info from the Ticket Telephone Centre 800-11-2004-2 (toll-free for calls originating in Greece) and +30-210-373-0000 (from mobile phones or abroad).
A full photo gallery of Opening & Closing Ceremonies and all details at www.athens2004.com.