No horsing around with Olympic heat Officials prepare equines and humans for Atlanta's summer

July 18, 1996|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- The most pampered athletes of the Summer Olympics will be bathed in ice-cold water, shaded by trees and portable mesh structures and observed by a high-priced, world-class medical staff armed with thermometers and salt supplements.

We're talking about horses.

At the 1996 Olympics, destined to become the Games of Heat and Humidity, competitors and spectators will be blasted by Southern summer weather. But it's the horses who will be under the greatest stress in the sun during the rugged equestrian three-day event. Sixty-four of the animals and their riders will be after gold. But even more important, everyone is out to avoid medical emergencies. Dead horses don't make for good Olympic television.

As they make their way through the strenuous sprint, endurance and cross country competition, the horses will be weighed twice daily and poked and prodded by veterinarians who have the power to lift the animals from the competition at the first hint of exhaustion. Cooling will be provided by 100 tons of ice and 85 misting fans.

In extreme heat, the riders even will be able to shed their wool coats, which is an equestrian version of streaking.

"The horses are the riders' children, their friend," says Charlie Lane, a rider and team manager for Great Britain. "You cannot put a horse away. You don't put him in a house or a garage. You look after him every day."

(The Humane Society of the United States seems unimpressed with the safety procedures, saying the measures to cool horses were like "placing a marathon runner in the emergency room for 15 minutes before he goes back to the race." The society, which last year asked that the three-day event be moved away from Atlanta's heat, said yesterday in a letter to the International Olympic Committee: "Only with substantial reform . . . would this sport become a fair and humane test of equine athleticism.")

Caring for the four-legged animals is just one part of a complex weather-related problem facing everyone at the Atlanta Games. Track sprinters will try to avoid cramps, cyclists will pack extra water bottles and spectators will be herded through cooling zones of misty spray.

L Hydration will be the official word of the Atlanta Olympics.

This is the South in July, the reason people invented air conditioning. The days are hot and humid, the nights are often dominated by thunderstorms. Apparently, the only sporting bureaucrats in the world who actually knew nothing about Atlanta's weather were the IOC members who bought the line that the city's summer temperatures average 79 degrees.

"Atlanta and Baltimore share the same weather regime this time of year, with typical highs of 89 to 91 degrees and high humidity," says Brad Churchill, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service's Olympic support team.

"The two main weather hazards are the heat index and lightning," Churchill says. "If we get a tropical system moving over the area, that's a concern, with heavy rain for Atlanta. But if the yachting venue in Savannah gets a hurricane, that could mess things up pretty good."

But the focus isn't on hurricanes, it's on heat. The Australians are bringing along vests that can be jammed with ice and put on the backs of overheated athletes. American field hockey players will be spending their pre-games downing bottle after bottle of water.

The British got ready for Atlanta by having most of their athletes work out in acclimation chambers, sort of giant tea kettles.

And virtually all the teams coming to Atlanta arrived a few weeks early in the United States for training in the Southern sun. Earlier this month, it was so hot one day that a track meet among runners from Africa was postponed until the late afternoon.

Although the last few days in Atlanta have been cloudy with relatively moderate temperatures in the 80s, everyone is preparing for the worst.

At last month's U.S. track and field trials in Atlanta, Dennis Mitchell won the 100-meter final, then collapsed with a leg cramp. Decathlete Dan O'Brien needed four intravenous bags of fluid to endure the two-day, 10-event grind. Fans were told to slap on the sun block and drink plenty of water.

The only place hotter than the Olympic track might be at the field hockey site, where the players run on artificial turf soaked in water that turns to steam.

"Until you've been here, you just don't know how hot it is," says U.S. field hockey player Kelli James.

"It runs you down," says James' teammate, Barb Marois. "It gets you dehydrated."

And is it hot on the feet?

"It's hot everywhere," Marois says.

The first human guinea pigs of these Games will be women cyclists, who will race 64 miles Sunday. The start time is 11 a.m. To understand just how difficult the conditions could be, consider that U.S. cyclist Alison Dunlap drank 13, 17-ounce bottles of water during a recent training session in Birmingham, Ala., and lost six pounds.

"You're in trouble if you don't supersaturate your body with water," Dunlap says.

In Atlanta, a water bottle just might be an athlete's most valuable possession.

Countdown

Days until opening ceremonies: 1.

Weather: The Olympics are likely to open in hot and thundery conditions but the storms will at least keep a feared intense heat wave at bay, weather forecasters said. A violent thunderstorm last night forced a brief postponement of the dress rehearsal of the Atlanta Olympics opening ceremonies.

Advertising: One of the Russian swimmers showed up for the Olympic team picture with the Reebok logo shaved into his head.

Pub Date: 7/18/96

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