EVEN before a powerful bomb planted in central Atlanta's Olympic Centennial Park killed several people, injured at least 200 and blasted the city's disingenuously erected facade of safety into sad little shrapnel on late Friday night, Billy Payne, the chief planner of the Atlanta
Olympic Games, had begun living up to his name.
In the span of a week, the real estate lawyer became a pain for thousands of athletes, spectators and journos who descended on the city in US Deep South for the centennial Games only to be caught in an avalanche of organisational goof-ups: dangerously lax security arrangements despite the largest peacetime mobilisation of personnel, a totally off-gear transport system, mishap-prone officials bumbling their way through designated chores, a rogue results computer...the list could go on.
Payne initially sought to play down the troubles. "Let the Games begin," he kept saying. The Payne mantra was picked up by Juan Antonio Samaranch, IOC president. The Games did get under way, but the unprecedented problems that reduced athletes and fans to mental wrecks refused to go away. If anything, they got worse. Let's face it, Atlanta, the Coca-Cola capital, simply wasn't the real thing.
The explosion was a reminder of Atlanta's disabilities. It occurred in a trash can in Centennial Park—built to commemorate 100 years of the Olympics and opened by President Bill Clinton just before the Games began—during a rock concert, leaving revellers writhing in pain in a 500 metre radius. Eyewitnesses saw 30-odd grievously injured people crawling away, while four lay in a foetal position, presumably dead. A sight no Olympic venue could be proud of.
The park area contains hotels housing athletes, including the US basketball 'Dream Team' and many dignitaries. Ambulances found it difficult to reach the site because of the teeming crowds and the traffic gridlock. Even journalists and photographers were teargassed when they tried to enter the press centre, which was cordoned off. It was chaos worst confounded.
Admittedly, organising the Olympic Games is a gigantic task. But six years is a long period to get things in order, especially in a country like the US of A. Third World countries are often mercilessly pilloried for 'rampant mismanagement' during global sport meets. One shudders to think how the western media and sporting community would have reacted had a fiasco as big as the one in Atlanta occurred in a developing nation.
The troubles in Atlanta began on day one. A major security lapse occurred at the opening ceremony when a man carrying a gun sneaked into the stadium while the US President was savouring what was meant to be his best worldwide ad campaign yet, as his bid for another term gathers momentum. The intruder was nabbed before he could do any harm, but the damage to the reputation of the US security machinery was irreparable. This was followed by a series of equally embarrassing glitches.
The organisers, already besieged by complaints about transportation snarl-ups and technical breakdowns, faced a near-revolt by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). The union threatened to withhold payments of $300,000 to the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) following a breakdown of the IBM computer network set up to provide results and details about athletes round the clock. One boxer was listed as aged 95, but the man himself assured everyone he was no more than 21. Broadcasters at some events looked for the names of contenders and found blank paper instead.
But nothing was quite as messy as the Atlanta transport system, which all but collapsed under the weight of the Games. Athletes and journalists were frequently late in arriving at their destinations or were left stranded by a bus fleet whose drivers were often clueless about the roads that led to the venues. Many were requisitioned from other US cities and were ill at ease on Atlanta's cogged streets.
THE centennial Games were actually all set to be organised in Athens, the birth place of Modern Olympics. But when the big bait of huge sponsorship deals was dangled before the IOC, it swallowed it forthwith and gave Atlanta the nod. After experiencing Atlanta for three days, Greek Minister for Foreign Affairs Theodore Pangalos said: "Athens could have done it". He had reasons to be hurt. "My view as a tourist is that there seems to be total confusion here." Pangalos said his party was always late wherever it went as the volunteers driving the organising committee's cars had no idea where exactly they were headed. So, instead of using one of the ACOG cars, Pangalos settled for a vehicle from the Greek consulate.
The bus system for the Games' participants was no better. Rowers from three countries resorted to an impromptu protest on the streets outside the Olympic Village before a bus was summoned to carry them to their venues. Frustrated British athletes joined their counterparts from New Zealand, Ukraine and Poland in the 'peaceful' demonstration that is credited with pushing some officials to take corrective measures. But they were simply not enough.
So exasperated were international sports officials, they made a public appeal to Atlanta mayor Bill Campbell to bring order to a system in which some foreign athletes were seen directing American bus drivers on their routes across the Georgia freeways. Families of the 11 Israelis killed by Arab terrorists during the Munich Games, present in the city, were also unhappy with the organisers. The IOC had assured the relatives of the killed Israelis that an official memorial service would be held for the dead. But IOC president Samaranch did not even make a mention of the dead during the opening ceremony of the Games. Shlomit Romano, 24, a member of the visiting families, was six months old when her father, weightlifter Joseph Romano, was killed. "We didn't say the word daddy once in our life and nobody remembers. How should I feel?" she asked.
Rumours about doping also cast a shadow on the Games. Irish swimmer Michelle Smith won her third gold medal of the Games, but soon sparked a row. Doping charges were levelled against her. Smith said she "has to laugh" at the rumours. But US swimmers and coaches were quick to express surprise at her rapid rise from obscurity at a late age. Significantly, her husband, Dutch discus and shot-put champion Eric DeBruin, has been suspended for using performance-enhancing drugs. "Unless there is proof in the testing lab, we cannot say anything", said Michelle Verdier, IOC spokeswoman. But several days into the Games, it was still not established, though tests had been carried out. In case Smith tests negative, she can sue the organisers and get the benefit of the doubt.
Amidst all the confusion, locals were out to have fun. In a city teeming with celebrity athletes and fans, scalpers had a ball. Strategically positioned near the venues, a small army of brash entrepreneurs were selling tickets. At hefty premiums. Atlanta broker Eric Light dodged several plainclothed sleuths and liveried cops before selling two track-and-field tickets for $1,500 each. For Light, the deal produced a tidy $1,400 profit for less than seven minutes' work.
Light and his ilk were perhaps the only ones not complaining. For virtually all else, the fun had gone out of the Games.