Glitch Games winning no medals IOC gives Atlanta stern warning about mix-ups, breakdown

Atlanta Olympics

July 23, 1996|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- Put 10,000 athletes, 2 million visitors and the world's largest sporting event into an American city in the heat of summer, and what do you get?

Sporadic outbreaks of chaos.

Though the centennial Summer Olympics may look great on television, behind the scenes, they are a sweat-soaked, problem-filled production.

Transportation foul-ups, computer breakdowns and athlete fury forced the Atlanta organizing committee to move quickly yesterday to fix the Games before they spiral from typical Olympic mayhem into a major sporting malfunction.

"It's hard for us not to be aware of problems. So many people are watching us," said Bob Brennan, spokesman for the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games.

The International Olympic Committee delivered a stern warning to the local organizers over the weekend: Fix the Games. Now.

Yesterday, Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell attended a daily meeting among top Olympic officials, pledging that the city would work with the sporting bureaucrats. Only a day earlier, Campbell said in a television interview: "They should take the critics out to the shooting venue and get rid of them."

Though every Olympics has a few hiccups in the first few days, the glitches bedeviling Atlanta appear to be among the worst since fans were stranded in the snow at the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Basically, these Games often have resembled Lake Placid -- with sweat.

Over the weekend, rowers revolted over transportation, staging a sit-down protest in front of buses at the main athletes' village. Rowers from Britain, Ukraine and Poland even hijacked a bus that was bound for field hockey. British star Steven Redgrave managed to commandeer a car that was meant to be used by Princess Anne. Yesterday, he finally packed up and left the athletes' village.

"He [Redgrave] had every right to be critical of the transportation problems he encountered," Brennan said.

Saturday, it took more than an hour to get an ambulance to transport an injured judo player. Another judo player missed his bout because he attempted to weigh in at the wrong location.

The American baseball team's opening game, against Nicaragua, started a half-hour late because both teams were delayed at security checkpoints.

The lights went out on America's Dream Team basketball squad in its opening game when a technician hit the wrong switch.

Results have been moving slowly -- or not at all -- over what was supposed to be a high-tech computer system, Info 96, a joint production of the Atlanta committee and IBM.

"We are suffering the consequences of innovation," Brennan said.

The French handball squad showed up for its first practice, but had a problem. Nobody had any handballs at the site.

Guy Tusseau, a doctor with the French team, said: "It's not America here."

Basically, Atlanta is now Olympic Town, suffering all the problems such a venture can bring.

Apparently, the sheer size of the Games is causing many of the problems. Never before have so many countries and athletes attended an Olympics. And though the vast majority of events are running on time, the miscues threaten to overshadow the successes.

"There are no perfections in this Olympic life," said Michele Verdier, an IOC spokeswoman.

"It's quite easy to verify the level of the problems. Many people are coming to town. It is a huge machine to start."

But the start has been rougher than usual.

"This is the worst setup I've ever seen for an Olympic Games," said Curt Harnett, Canada's four-time Olympic cyclist. "Athletes are trained to deal with problem-solving techniques. What do I do if I break my shoelace? What do I do if my equipment malfunctions? We go through these exercises. But now, there is one more thing we'll have to deal with: What happens if I don't get there on time?"

Canadian fencer James Ransom showed up just 10 minutes before his bout because the bus driver didn't know the directions to the venue. Ransom lost.

"The greatest fear we have is that an athlete will miss his or her competition because of our failure to provide timely transportation," Brennan said.

He said organizers would do "whatever it takes," to solve the complex problem of transporting so many athletes, officials, members of the media and spectators by bus.

But he provided no specifics. Fifty bus drivers have quit in recent days, though there are still nearly 3,000 others in town. However, many of those drivers were brought in from other cities, and don't know their way around Atlanta.

"I don't know what it costs. It doesn't matter. We have to fix them [the problems]," Brennan said.

Apparently, the saving grace of these Games are the citizens of Atlanta, who have shown remarkable resilience and hospitality as they provide strangers with directions and help them cope with a rail system that is overcrowded, undermanned and overwhelmed.

"It's amazing how many people can fit in those trains," said Linda Jerwicz of Edison, N.J. "We were like sardines down there."

Yesterday, the first working rush hour of these Olympics, the roads were generally clear, as workers either drove into the city before sunrise, took the trains or put up with a makeshift shuttle bus system that, more often than not, has left commuters stranded for hours.

But the Olympic spectators apparently are content to negotiate the often lengthy lines at security checkpoints, the high prices for tickets, and the hot, muggy weather.

"I'm sure that something this massive is tough to coordinate," said Andra Kucera of Dallas. "It would be nice if they had more Olympic decorations and more spirit around town. I guess now we can always say about the Olympics, 'Been there, done that.' "

Pub Date: 7/23/96

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