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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

He Gives Nod to L.A. Games, '94 Cup

Criticism: Major League Soccer head Rothenberg cites Atlanta's problems with security and uninformed volunteers.

August 05, 1996|BILL DWYRE | TIMES SPORTS EDITOR

ATLANTA — On the last day of the Olympics, the man who organized and directed this country's previous international sports event, the 1994 World Cup of soccer, was highly critical of the '96 Summer Games.

Alan Rothenberg, president of the U.S. Soccer Federation and chairman of Major League Soccer, said in an interview Sunday that, although the competition was exciting and generally well received, so many other things went awry that the general legacy of the Atlanta Olympics will not be positive.

"Now that it is said and done," Rothenberg said, "the Centennial Olympic Games made the L.A. Olympics and the World Cup look even better."

Rothenberg, a Los Angeles attorney, played a major role in each event.

He was the commissioner of soccer for the L.A. Games, and the fact that 1.4 million tickets were sold for a sport that, at that time in the United States enjoyed nowhere near the popularity it does now, helped position him for his later role as an international decision-maker in the sport.

And as USSF president, he ran a 1994 World Cup that surpassed even the most optimistic expectations of the national and international soccer community, as well as those of members of the media, most of whom had come fearing the worst from a tournament being run in a soccer frontier.

Rothenberg said that, as somebody who has been there, done that, he felt great empathy for the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG). But he also felt its organization was flawed in many areas. He listed those areas:

--"By and large, spectators had a good time, once they were able to get to the venues."

--"Security here created a horrible ambience. It felt like a military zone. We all know how vital security is, but you can't have a situation where it feels like a foreign occupied territory."

--"With the technological and transportation problems, you expect an occasional breakdown or two is going to occur, but to have things go on as long as they did, and to have them recur as often as they did, clearly indicates a breakdown somewhere in the planning process."

--"One of the great things in any Olympics, or any World Cup event, is the spirit of volunteerism. You couldn't do it without them, but training them properly is crucial. Here in Atlanta, the volunteers seemed never to have answers to anything. They were good citizens, well-meaning people. But ultimately, in an event such as this, you need more than nice smiles. All that indicates that training of these people was not up to the proper levels."

--"The visual recollection of the Atlanta Games is one of over-commercialization. Too many signs, too much stuff around."

Rothenberg conceded that the very size of the Atlanta Olympics, as large as Los Angeles and Barcelona put together in number of tickets sold, may have made it impossible to avoid all the problems.

"That's the biggest question," he said. "Have the Olympics just become too big? Maybe, if they keep going like this, they'll become unmanageable, no matter where they are."

Rothenberg said that the International Olympic Committee, rather than deflecting much of the blame for the woes of Atlanta to ACOG, should be sharing in it.

"The IOC talks out of both sides of its mouth," Rothenberg said. "They say they don't want things overly commercialized, but then they put the price so high to get the Games that they force the people putting them on to do all these commercial things.

"Now, they are talking about how they never again will do a Games without government support. Well, that pretty well knocks the United States out.

"They seem to forget, in 1984, they had only Tehran and Los Angeles to go to. Obviously, they come to L.A., Peter [Ueberroth] bails them out. Now they are fat and happy, with NBC laying a couple billion dollars on them for the future, and so they complain to the local organizing committee about over-commercialization.

"I'm not sure that the Atlanta people had any choice but to get all the sponsors they could just to stay in the game financially."

Rothenberg said that, by the luck of the draw for the 2000 Summer Games, the immediate future of the Olympics may be fine.

"Sydney is a lovely place, and it is also so far away that the size of the event may be scaled down for that very reason," he said. "Call it a self-screening process."

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