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ATLANTA 1996 / 19 Days to The Games

HOTLANTA : Officials Sweat It Out as Even the Army Is Being Called Out to Beat the Heat

June 30, 1996|RANDY HARVEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — In 1732, in an attempt to lure the world to the colony he founded, James Edward Oglethorpe described Georgia as "always serene, pleasant and temperate, never subject to excessive heat or cold, nor to sudden changes; the winter is regular and short, and the summer cool'd with refreshing breezes."

Two hundred fifty-eight years later, in an attempt to lure the world to Atlanta for the Summer Olympics, Billy Payne assured the International Olympic Committee in 1990 that the average temperature between July 19 and Aug. 4 in 1996 would be about 72 degrees. He did not mention that those days would be "cool'd with refreshing breezes." It was not necessary. The IOC was sold, awarding the Centennial Games to Atlanta over Athens, Greece.

Payne, president of the praying-to-break-even Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG), also predicted a sizable profit. So perhaps he was not trying to mislead the IOC. Perhaps he is simply bad with numbers.

In either case, National Weather Service officials confirm that the average temperature in Atlanta for the days of the Games is 70. That, however, is the low. The mercury stays there for about seven minutes, when most people are sleeping. The average high, they say, is 91.

Last summer, the average high during the 17 days of the Games was 97. With the humidity, the heat index topped 100 in the middle of the day almost every day. It was so brutal that ACOG officials canceled the final day of a venue tour for foreign journalists. The National Weather Service predicts a 37.3% chance that it will be that warm again this year.

But who needs meteorologists to forecast the weather in Atlanta? The city might be called Hotlanta because that is where the action is in the Deep South, but that nickname also could apply to the summer climate.

How hot is it?

"The Sweatlanta Olympics," says the Economist. "It was not exactly chilly in Barcelona . . . or in Los Angeles in 1984, but Atlanta's could be the most grueling Games ever."

". . . A temple-thumping, polluted, humid heat that saps your energy," says the Times of London.

". . . Soaked-shirt, parched-tongue, fry-an-egg-on-the-sidewalk hot," says the Associated Press.

". . . Bad for spectators and hell on earth for competitors," says Sports Illustrated.

Even Payne now acknowledges that the weather is ACOG's No. 1 villain.

Now that we have established that Atlanta is a hot spot, the question is what officials plan to do about it.

IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch said he believes he will be OK. "Maybe I will not wear a tie," he said. But he has concerns that were passed along last month to ACOG about the athletes, spectators and even the high-tech scoreboards at the outdoor venues.

Responding that the organizing committee is ready for the challenge, ACOG spokeswoman Laurie Olsen said, "Between the city, country, state and a host of community groups, Atlanta is mounting an unprecedented effort."

They are, literally, calling out the Army. The Defense Department is involved. So is the Salvation Army. And Red Cross and Blue Cross. If all else fails, they have asked for help from above. Twenty churches will be open at all times to provide air-conditioned shelter and water for visitors who have come to watch the Games, and even wayward marathoners.

That will not be an option for four-legged athletes, the horses in equestrian and modern pentathlon events. But they have not been forgotten. Animal rights activists raised concerns about the horses before anyone began talking about potential risks for two-legged athletes.

"We think we have done a tremendous amount of work to watch the only athletes in the Games who cannot say, 'Stop,' " veterinarian Kent Allen said during an ACOG media seminar on the heat here last week. "But we do not intend to let these athletes run until exhaustion."

After four years and $1 million in expenditures on a project to protect the horses, ACOG installed high-powered water mist fans at the site of the equestrian competitions, the Georgia International Horse Park in Conyers, Ga., lengthened rest periods and shortened courses.

They could not do the same thing for human athletes, but the men's marathon was rescheduled from its traditional starting time, in the late afternoon so that it can conclude during the closing ceremony, to 7 a.m.

Many well-conditioned athletes might not be able to take the heat, especially in endurance events. Records in sports that require more than 15 or 20 minutes to complete are safe, Phil Sparling, a Georgia Institute of Technology exercise researcher told the seminar.

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