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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

Chaos, Congestion Still the Focus of Attention

Organization: Atlanta officials are told to race to remedy what is fast becoming an embarrassing situation.

July 23, 1996|ERIC HARRISON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — The International Olympic Committee on Monday demanded quick action by local officials to solve transportation and technological problems that have marred the first four days of the Olympic Games.

The city and local Olympic organizers have been overwhelmed by the unprecedented crush of people into downtown, where most Olympic venues are located. The problems have been aggravated by equipment breakdowns, bus drivers who don't know the city and organizational snafus that have left even athletes waiting hours for buses.

"This is our first time hosting an event of this size," said Lee Zukowski, a spokeswoman for the Atlanta Olympic organizing committee. "There are going to be some problems."

But, she added, "Any time problems come up, we are dealing with them as quickly as we can. None of the problems are lingering on without people attending to them."

The problems, if they are not solved quickly, could prove a colossal embarrassment to the city and to local organizers of the event, which earlier had been touted as the "Technology Games" because of all the advanced technological systems that are being used and which were expected to make these the most efficient Games ever.

Instead, some critics are saying that the organizational and technological problems far exceed those seen at other Olympic Games.

Officials said problems are to be expected at the start of the Games. But on the fourth day, organizers still were working on delivering competition results to reporters in a timely manner and getting athletes to events on time.

"We've had improvements in these problems since yesterday, and I am hopeful that these improvements will continue," Michele Verdier, spokeswoman for the International Olympic Committee, said Monday.

The transportation problems are a result of the Games' success, she said. "These Games are the greatest ever, with all countries with national Olympic committees taking part for the first time. The problems are a consequence of the Games' success."

But behind the scenes, international Olympic officials who called an emergency meeting Sunday with high-ranking local organizers reportedly were adamant that the problems be solved quickly.

"Drastic steps need to be taken," Pal Schmitt, an IOC vice president, told the Bloomberg news service.

At the meeting, IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch expressed disappointment with the way things were going. "He was very strong," Schmitt said. "ACOG [the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games] was told to take immediate steps to solve the transportation problem."

Problems have included bus drivers quitting because of the pressures of dealing with angry passengers and negotiating unfamiliar routes. One athlete reportedly waited two hours at the Olympic village for a bus. Officials did not reveal details of the incident, other than to say that the athlete "was very forceful in expressing his displeasure with the transportation arrangements."

The problem of bus drivers getting lost will be fixed by having a local guide on the bus to direct drivers, officials said.

Officials for the city and Atlanta's rapid transit system emphasized that local Olympic organizers bear responsibility for the transportation system.

But Jill Strickland, press secretary for Mayor Bill Campbell, said that he is reviewing what steps the city could take to help.

IOC officials invited him to meet with them Monday to discuss the problems.

"The mayor came to assure the coordinating commission that the city and [local Olympic organizers] are working together to solve problems," said Bob Brennan, an Olympic spokesman. "It was an expression of solidarity reflecting the city's concern. The city has a vital interest in the Games also."

He said the mayor assured officials that they have the city's full support.

While the city had not decided what steps it might take to help matters by late afternoon, Strickland said actions might include closing off certain streets to reroute traffic to make it flow more smoothly.

Monday was the first business day since the Games officially kicked off Friday night. Freeways and surface streets were relatively clear of traffic, in part because most downtown employees went to work early.

"Train stations were filling up by 5 or 5:30," said Laura Gillig, spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority.

Olympic organizers had urged that people ride the subway. The message may have gotten through too well. One million people rode city trains and buses Saturday, the first day of competition. On Sunday, 824,000 rode. Ridership normally is 475,000, Gillig said.

Ridership started to fall, she said, as more people began relying on a park-and-ride-system operated by Olympic organizers to get people downtown.

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