Is Games' future still a safe bet? ATLANTA OLYMPICS

July 28, 1996|By KEN ROSENTHAL

ATLANTA -- They're lucky it wasn't worse, lucky it didn't happen in the middle of the day, lucky it was only a homemade bomb.

One is dead and 111 are injured. But at the most disorganized Olympics in recent memory, a far greater number of people is at risk.

Too many people, too little space, too crazy a world. Even if the Games were running as smoothly as possible, they'd still be unmanageable.

When $301 million worth of security is still not enough to ensure safety, are the Olympics really worth the trouble?

One day in Atlanta is all it takes for that question to occur to the average person, but the International Olympic Committee won't admit creating a monster.

The flustered Atlanta organizers won't admit that staging the Games is a nightmare even for a competent host committee.

And the corporate sponsors won't employ their beloved theories on downsizing when there is so much exposure at stake, so much money to be had.

The Olympics are out of control, OK?

It's time someone takes a long, hard look at the future of the "movement," before terrorism becomes an official event.

Indeed, historians might one day note the irony of the tragedy occurring in Centennial Olympic Park, the heart of the corporate orgy. Sodom and Gomorrah, Ancient Rome, Atlanta '96.

When the largest peacetime security force in the history of the United States can't stop an amateur act of terrorism, maybe you should take the hint.

Why are we here?

That's the question of the day.

The original idea was to gather athletes from all over the world to engage in the spirit of true competition.

Yet, that's only part of the equation now.

This isn't to suggest that commercialism is somehow responsible for what happened at 1: 25 a.m. yesterday -- that notion is absurd.

But commercialism is a major reason the Games keep evolving into a bigger spectacle -- and a bigger target.

The Games must go on. The Games always go on. If the murders of 11 Israeli athletes couldn't stop this party in 1972, why should a homemade pipe bomb?

There are venues to fill, TV ratings to consider, advertising dollars to collect. Even a one-day postponement would have caused major logistical problems.

And in case you missed it, Atlanta has had a few of those already.

Whether another foul-up occurred yesterday morning is debatable. Yes, security at Centennial Park could have been tighter. But that's the one Olympic site where organizers encouraged visitors to gather freely and stroll.

Where do you draw the line? Metal detectors at the gates would have reduced spectator freedom. Besides, Centennial Park isn't the only crowded spot in Atlanta. The terrorist could have picked another spot.

From the World Trade Center to Oklahoma City, TWA Flight 800 to Centennial Park, we've learned there's no such thing as a safe place.

The crowds are so large in Atlanta, the organizers so overwhelmed, something was almost bound to happen.

No wonder organizers of the 2000 Sydney Olympics said yesterday that they are considering a giant security zone to encompass all of the main venues at the Games.

The night of the Atlanta opening ceremonies, there was such a backup of reporters at the gates, security eventually allowed them to enter, checking only their credentials and not their bags.

The same thing reportedly happened yesterday -- the day of the bombing.

Meanwhile, a security volunteer from a northeastern university estimated that 30 percent of her colleagues have left Atlanta, disillusioned by broken promises from the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games.

Others are collecting their room and board but not working, but ACOG is unable to keep track of all of them, she said.

And yet, the Games probably are operating as well as can be expected. The transportation system has improved. People are enjoying themselves. And until yesterday, security was flawless.

But just as a 99 percent success rate isn't enough in airline safety, neither is it for the Olympics.

Billy Payne, the head of ACOG, keeps indulging in the new American tradition of spin control, telling the world everything is wonderful.

Well, not everything is wonderful.

And Payne's arrogance is part of the problem.

He promised the greatest Games ever, when he never grasped the magnitude of what he was trying to accomplish.

They're all suffering from hubris -- IOC, ACOG, even many of the athletes themselves. Like Icarus, they've flown too close to the sun.

The solution is to scale back -- fewer athletes, fewer events, maybe even a shifting of certain indoor sports to the smaller Winter Games.

Will it happen?

Not a chance.

This is business.

One person is dead, 111 are injured, but the Games must go on.

Olympic updates

To hear hourly Olympic news updates and a schedule of daily events, call Sundial at (410) 783-1800 and enter the four-digit code 4465. For other local Sundial numbers, see the Sundial directory on Page 2A.

Pub Date: 7/28/96

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