A cloud hangs over the temple

Athens is gearing up to host the Olympic Games - but that honour comes at a high price

It would take a brave man indeed to deny that the Parthenon is the most perfect building ever erected. "Ruthlessly flawless" was how Le Corbusier, the pioneer of architectural modernism, put it. "To see the Acropolis is a dream one treasures without even dreaming to realise it," he wrote.

Shrouded as it is in scaffolding, it is easy to understand why, nowadays, some would prefer not to see the wonder of the Golden Age at all.

There are an estimated 25,000 pieces of marble strewn around the monument; it takes a leap of the imagination to see the masterpiece without feeling that it has become a mound of ancient rubble.

This summer, however, those who climb the "sacred hill" will come across a disturbing discovery: one of the temples, that of Athena Nike, goddess of victory, is missing altogether. Conservationists say they have had no other option, in the battle to preserve the marbles, but to dismantle this icon of Ionic art entirely.

Precisely because the Acropolis is the ultimate monument of antiquity, doing anything to it is a slow business. The tiniest intervention on stones that have survived fire, bombshells, looting and earthquakes, across a span of 25 centuries, inevitably spawns immense debate.

In roughly 15 years of writing about the repair works to the temples, I have always been struck by the perseverance of the talented preservationists seconded to the site - this in the face of committees and the infighting, above all, that Greek committees invariably breed.

Athens is to host the 2004 Olympics, a task which requires meeting unreasonably tight deadlines - and the pressure has suddenly increased.

The government has made clear that it wants all the tools of restoration - meaning the scaffolding and the mammoth crane that have hovered over the Parthenon for the best part of a decade - removed by the time CNN and other television channels roll in for the opening ceremony of the games.

The need to look good in front of the foreigners means that budgets and bureaucracy have suddenly eased up. For the first time in almost 150 years of attempts to restore the monument, money is no object. In the course of a few months, the team of marble-carvers, engineers, crane operators, archaeologists and architects has increased threefold.

But the political pressure to speed up the process makes preservationists fear the worst. Preservation is painstaking work; in the case of Pericles's fifth-century BC gem, progress is also constrained by the unpredictable nature of the works and the lack of space to conduct them.

"The welfare of the monuments is our overriding concern," says the architect Tasos Tanoulas, who has been at the Acropolis since the latest repair project began in 1977. "We don't want the Olympics to change our philosophy . . . it might explain why cultured people in Greece never wanted these games in the first place."

The public concern has been aggravated by worries over the ever-growing efforts to commercialise Athens's classical antiquities. As proof of this, Greeks point to the decision to destroy a unique archaeological site at the foot of the Acropolis so as to make way for a new, tourist-friendly museum that many hope will one day house the Elgin Marbles.

If the behemoth were to be built elsewhere, officials say, visitors would not have such a fantastic view of the temples, and would tire their eyes trying to glimpse them in the bright Attic sun.

But everyone knows that, besides the ravages of pollution, it is time that distances the Acropolis day by day from its initial state of perfection. Restorers are working around the clock to replace thousands of rusting iron clamps - installed in an earlier, misguided attempt to strengthen the temples - with non-corrosive titanium rods.

"The Acropolis has so many secrets . . . there's not a day that passes without one of them being revealed," says Lena Lambrinou, the architect in charge of measuring the cracks in the Parthenon's entablature. "We can only hope and pray that, in 50 years' time, what we are doing now to protect this great, beautiful site will be considered the right thing to have done."

The author is Greece correspondent for the Guardian and Observer