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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

Atlanta Is Stumbling Out of the Blocks

Glitches: Technology, transportation fail in first few days of Summer Games.

July 22, 1996|From Associated Press

ATLANTA — Where's the bus?

What's the score?

Who turned out the lights?

Glitches in technology and transportation at the Atlanta Games are testing the patience of everyone from athletes and coaches to sports editors trying to publish results for the folks back home.

"These are as bad a first few days as I've seen," said one high-ranking IOC member.

The Olympic transportation system, which has separate components for athletes, journalists and spectators, has been denounced across the board for late arrivals and drivers who get lost.

Organizers tried to put the best face on the problems Sunday, saying that many of them are the natural byproducts of a gigantic event that, in progress only two days, is still working out its bugs.

Publicly, the IOC dismissed the problems as routine.

"I think it's normal," said IOC spokeswoman Michele Verdier. "The start is always a bit difficult."

In private, however, it was a different story.

At a daily meeting with the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, IOC officials insisted on immediate action. "It was the toughest meeting ACOG has had to sit through," said one IOC official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"Nobody ever believes it will be as difficult as it is. Now they believe it," said Dick Pound, a vice president of the International Olympic Committee.

The highly touted Olympic information system, which delivers scores and other results to news organizations, was suffering frequent failures.

Glitches in the ACOG-IBM computer caused delays in getting results to news organizations throughout the weekend, and there were no results at all from some sports. While they tried to fix the problems, officials resorted to a system of distributing results manually--that is, having a messenger deliver the results by hand to news agencies, which then keyboarded the information.

The IOC summoned IBM Chairman Louis Gerstner to an emergency meeting in Atlanta. A spokesman for IBM did not return a telephone call Sunday.

The Associated Press, which distributes Olympic results to 1,500 newspapers across the nation, was unable to provide complete statistics because of the problems.

"It is disappointing to know that what was billed as a state-of-the-art results service can't even produce bare scores in some cases," said Terry Taylor, AP sports editor.

"The Olympics are the single most important event in sports," she said. "ACOG's inability to provide full results from these events is a disservice to our members and to their readers."

The German news agency Deutsche Press-Agentur resorted to copying results off TV and manually punching them into its system, said Klaus Sprick, senior vice president for technology.

"My feeling is most people underestimated the size of the effort," Sprick said.

Television viewers saw a vivid example of the Glitch Games on Saturday night when half the lights at the Georgia Dome went out, causing a 10-minute delay in the basketball game between the United States and Argentina. The problem was blamed on an engineer hitting a wrong switch.

More worrisome and more rampant are the behind-the-scenes transportation and technology problems.

"We've given up on transportation," rower Steven Redgrave fumed Sunday after he and teammates caught a ride with a British Olympic official rather than wait for the official ACOG bus.

"It took us four years to get here," said Redgrave, who is seeking his fourth gold medal. "We're not going to let someone's organization stop us now."

He said it took a bus two hours to take the team 30 miles to the rowing site at Lake Lanier on Saturday.

Dave Gerrard, chef de mission for the New Zealand team, complained about the buses after athletes were late returning to the Olympic Village after Friday night's opening ceremony.

"I put the last ones to bed about 3.30 a.m. We were disappointed with the crazy snarl-ups," he said.

There were other problems involving transportation:

--The driver of a bus carrying reporters from Atlanta to Lake Lanier burst into tears halfway through the ride, explaining she was not used to driving on freeways, according to passenger Julian Branch, a Canadian radio reporter. The driver returned to Atlanta and a replacement bus took the group to Lanier, but arrived 20 minutes after the rowing had begun.

--The bus carrying Canadian fencer James Ransom got lost Saturday and made it to the World Congress Center only 10 minutes before his match, which he lost.

--After Austrian judo athlete Eric Krieger was injured Saturday, the responding ambulance broke down. The replacement was delayed, apparently because it was not properly credentialed.

The Olympic shuttle bus system includes a fleet borrowed from other mass transit systems and drivers, many of whom usually drive school buses, who were hired for $9 an hour. About 50 of the 3,000 shuttle drivers have already quit, complaining of exhaustion and insufficient training.

"I'm not getting proper sleep or proper food," said one of them, Willie Mae Brown. "I'm concerned about the safety of my passengers and myself."

Sharon Wallace, an ACOG spokeswoman, confirmed the drivers had quit, but said it would not disrupt the system.

Though the problems were dominating the conversation in Olympic circles, some believed the problems were being overblown.

"They should take the critics out to the shooting venue and get rid of them," joked Mayor Bill Campbell in an interview with WXIA-TV in Atlanta.

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