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Olympia going green ahead of torch ceremony

ANCIENT OLYMPIA, Greece (Reuters) - Workers are racing against the clock to re-plant trees on ancient Olympia before next month's Beijing Games torch-lighting ceremony after the area was devastated by last year's forest fires.
A worker adjusts a hose that is used to water burnt grass around the stadium of the ancient Olympia archaeological site southwest of Athens September 1, 2007. (REUTERS/Yiorgos Karahalis/Files)

Hundreds of thousands of acres of forest land were torched during the blazes last August that left much of the western Peloponnese in ashes and more than 65 people dead.

The site of the ancient Olympics and the modern Games' torch-lighting ceremony and relay did not escape destruction. The once lush pine forests that hug the ancient stadium and the popular archaeological site were left charred.

"Re-planting is already halfway done," Olympia mayor Giorgos Aidonis told Reuters on Monday. "As usual, we started late but I am optimistic that by the end of February the work will finish."

The Hellenic Olympic Committee recently warned that Greece faced international embarrassment because of re-forestation delays that would become visible in television pictures beamed around the world during the ceremony on March 24.

The Games will be held in the Chinese capital in August.

"We are rushing to be ready on time. More than 27,000 plants and trees will be planted by the end of February," Aidonis said.


Dozens of workers are now busy planting trees on the eerily bare Kronios hill, once covered in wild vegetation, above the ancient stadium.

Olympia is the home of the ancient Games and the torch-lighting ceremony and relays for every winter and summer Olympics since the 1936 Berlin Games.

Though the site was spared by the flames, nearby forests and the International Olympic Committee-owned Olympic Academy were severely damaged.

Gardeners have planted young cypress trees around the monument of the modern Games founder, Pierre de Coubertin, in the academy compound. The white marble monument, where his heart is buried, is the first stop of the first relay runner after every ceremony.

Aidonis said the IOC has done nothing to help.

"Absolutely nothing. They have not paid a single penny," he said.

The IOC said funds were given to the Greek Olympic Committee following the fires.

"A donation of $250,000 was made at the time via the National Olympic Committee," an IOC official told Reuters.

Local residents were also angry with what they said was cosmetic work only for the ceremony.

"There are other areas nearby that suffered even greater damage but there is no re-forestation going on there," local worker Achilleas Passias said, watering seedlings above the Coubertin monument.

"People died, people lost their homes and their livelihood so they should be cared for and not only what TV cameras will show during the torch lighting ceremony in March."

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