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ATLANTA 1996

Problems at Olympics to Be Fixed, Host Vows

Atlanta: Committee chief accepts blame for transit, technology glitches. He insists Games will rise above them.

July 25, 1996|ERIC HARRISON and BILL DWYRE | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

ATLANTA — The head of the beleaguered Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games acknowledged Wednesday that his organization was responsible for massive transportation and communication problems, apologized and promised that things will get better.

"We have no deniability," said Billy Payne, president and CEO of the Atlanta committee, at a luncheon to which he invited representatives of newspapers from New York, Los Angeles and Washington and five national and international news organizations.

"We let you down."

Payne, a former football player at the University of Georgia, whose dream was to bring the Olympics to Atlanta and showcase the South to the world, said that all responsibility for the severe problems of transportation and technology affecting media coverage of this event rested with ACOG.

"It is my fault. It is our fault," he said.

The horror stories of communication and transportation problems have been a main topic here since the Games began Friday. There have been late, lost or nonexistent buses. There have been massive jams in the public transit system known here as MARTA, leading to missed events and missed deadlines. And there has been the failure of the results and information system, touted before the games as state of the art.

For all that, Payne apologized and offered assurances that if all might not be quite fixed yet, all would be.

Payne said that the size of these Games has been both a blessing and a curse. He said that more than 8 1/2 million tickets have already been sold, with nearly 2 million still available. At Barcelona, Spain, in '92, he said, 3 million tickets were sold.

"These Games are the size of the Barcelona and [1984] Los Angeles Games combined," he said. "That presented many new sets of challenges. And where others see these things as challenges, I see them as opportunities. But when we take on something this sizable, our success becomes a main reason for our difficulties."

He also pointed out that the number of buses needed to handle all the demands here is triple the normal fleet, that having 11 of the competitive venues in a 3-mile ring near downtown Atlanta is a huge challenge, as are the masses of fans they attract to a very small area.

"It's like putting three cities on top of each other," he said.

But Payne also said that media problems, or even those portions of the transportation mix-ups or information system inadequacies that have affected the paying public, should not cloud the overall success of these Games.

"To extend things out to saying that, because of some of these problems the Games are not well-organized, well, that's just not right, and you can tell that just by looking out my window," Payne said. "It is wrong when you take the license to extend those things to the image of the Games in general."

Despite all the problems and criticism, the Atlanta Games are working, he said.

"People are rejoicing in the streets," Payne said. "People are infatuated with Olympic sports. I've been to five Olympics, and the attendance and enthusiasm we've seen to date for all sports here has just been overwhelming to me.

"I went to shooting, and I could see in the competitors' eyes that they were overwhelmed by the number of people there watching. I went to boxing, and they were all fired up because of the large crowds."

Payne's director of communications, Dick Yarborough, took the same stance in a morning press briefing.

"Clearly, the spectators are enjoying themselves, having a great time," he said. "Please walk around the streets and see the people. See the celebration that is taking place, the enthusiasm."

Yarborough said that people attending Tuesday's sessions had purchased 37,000 tickets for future events on their way out.

Payne also said that the media stories of over-commercialization and general tackiness of the Olympic area in downtown Atlanta were misguided.

"There are some structures here now that I don't like as much as you don't like," he said. "But when somebody builds a platform to sell T-shirts, that isn't something permanent and that doesn't affect me.

"I believe that the popularity of the Games, with all the wonderful competition, will be the story of these Games, and I expect your exit polls will show that."

Payne said he takes a walk every night in Centennial Olympic Park, the once vacant space in the heart of the Olympic area here that was his vision and creation.

"I walk, mostly in the main plaza, and I see all the lights and go to the places where everybody is really partying," Payne said. "What you all see as crowds, I see as something else."

* GYMNASTICS: It took less than 24 hours for Kerri Strug to become an Olympic sensation. S1

* SWIMMING: The women's medley relay team won the only gold of the day for the U.S. S1

* BASKETBALL: The Dream Team put away Lithuania, 104-82. S3

* TV COVERAGE: S2

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