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The Bittersweet End

Atlanta: IOC disappointed that host city failed to solve problems involved with massive undertaking.


ATLANTA — Disheartened that International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch would vary from his standard closing ceremonies remarks Sunday night by declining to call the 1996 Summer Olympics "the best Games ever," the president of Atlanta's organizing committee made the declaration for him.

"From the perspective of the community that hosted the Games, the visitors who attended the Games, the athletes who performed at the Games, I think we have achieved our goal," said Billy Payne, who had vowed to organize the largest peacetime event ever and the best Olympics in the 100-year history of the modern Games.

Yet, Payne was struggling Sunday to be heard above criticism from IOC members and other longtime observers of the Olympic movement.

Most agreed that the Games, with few exceptions, were excellent for athletes and spectators and praised the revival of the Olympic spirit in the city after the bombing at Centennial Olympic Park in the early hours of June 27 that left two dead and 111 injured.

But they were perplexed about transportation and technology problems never fully solved by the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games and expressed concern about the direction these Games have taken the movement in dealing with commercialism and size.

And unlike Atlanta officials after the Summer Olympics four years ago in Barcelona, organizers of future Games--Nagano, Japan, and Salt Lake City for the winters of 1998 and 2002 and Sydney, Australia, for the summer of 2000--were going home today having learned less about what to do than what not to do.

In his speech during the closing ceremonies before a capacity crowd in Centennial Olympic Stadium, Samaranch did not use the words "best Games ever," as he has in the previous seven Games he has presided over since 1984. He opened with a tentative, "Well done, Atlanta," although he later was more enthusiastic in calling the city's effort "most exceptional."

But the former Spanish ambassador to the Soviet Union was less diplomatic in an interview with a German newspaper, Welt am Sonntag.

"I don't want to say that in Atlanta they were not doing the best they could for us, but perhaps it could have been better," he said. "Many things in Atlanta went well, but there are many things that we must improve or change."

Anita DeFrantz, an IOC executive board member from Los Angeles, acknowledged that her colleagues were disappointed with aspects of the Games, but said Atlanta might not have been judged as objectively as past Olympic cities because it promised so much in its campaign to win the bid six years ago for the Centennial Games over sentimental favorite Athens, Greece.

"They raised the level of expectations so high that I'm not sure anyone could have met those expectations," she said. "It became very easy to find fault when they didn't meet them."

Atlanta received unanimous praise from members, she said, for its response to the bombing on the eighth night of the Games. The downtown park created as a gathering place for those who wanted to experience the Olympic atmosphere was closed for three days while law enforcement agencies scoured the crime scene. Then it reopened with a tasteful and moving memorial service and soon was attracting even larger crowds than before.

Asked if he believes the memory of Atlanta's Games will be marred by the bombing, Payne said: "No, I think Atlanta will be remembered for the way we charged back into the park, reclaimed it, put a stake in the ground. We bounced back even stronger than before, even while we carried in our hearts a loss for the families of the victims."

ACOG also received high marks for its primary function, organizing athletic contests. Competing for the most part in state-of-the-art venues that DeFrantz said were "spectacular, absolutely spectacular," numerous world, national and Olympic records were set as an unprecedented number of countries won medals.

The athletes in general were pleased, not only with the competition sites but the villages that housed them.

"I had a blast," said Simi Valley archer Justin Huish, who won two gold medals.

It was a daunting task for the organizing committee. Involved were so many more athletes (almost 11,000) from so many more countries (197) with so many more spectators (9 million tickets sold) than ever before that Payne referred to it as "2 1/2 Olympic Games."

But Payne admitted that the organizing committee, the city and even the Olympic movement might have been "victims of our success" because Atlanta's infrastructure, particularly the transportation system, was overwhelmed.

ACOG had enough difficulty transporting athletes, officials and media. Buses, particularly those borrowed from other cities, often broke down. Some drivers, also imported, were unfamiliar with Atlanta's streets and freeways. Many quit in frustration.

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