The glow of the opening show and dreams of glory vie with commercial glitz at the Atlanta Olympics



The glow of the opening show and dreams of glory vie with commercial glitz at the Atlanta Olympics






It was a spectacle that combined artistry with fireworks, designed to dazzle as well as pluck at heartstrings. The opening ceremonies of the Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta last week were almost 4 1/2 hours long—yet surprisingly short on high-tech wizardry. Instead, the stadium was filled with streams of fabric and the fluttering wings of giant, glistening butterflies, while dancers cast silhouettes of athletes on the walls of a stylized white-cloth Greek temple. The competitors were there, too, from the lone athlete marching for Lebanon to an American contingent more than 600 strong. Middle-distance runner Charmaine Crooks carried the flag for the 307-member Canadian team. Tie emotional high point, however, belonged to an athlete who years ago bowed out of the ring. Boxing legend Muhammad Ali, his left arm shaking from the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s disease, held aloft the Olympic torch and then lit the flame symbolizing the ancient spirit of the Games.

“It seems so exciting, everything going on, the fireworks, the whole show,” said Michael Arrowsmith, a spectator from South Carolina among the 83,000-strong audience at the opening. “It’s a historic event—you think you’re never going to forget this for the rest of your life.”

At last, the Olympic Games ignited— slowly, stutteringly, as if from a slow-burning fuse that, for a time, seemed always on

The glow of the opening show and dreams of glory vie with commercial glitz at the Atlanta Olympics

the verge of fizzling. The opener held the spectators spellbound and revved up the athletes.

Atlanta put on its cheeriest “How y’all doin’?” smile, puffing with southern pride. The stage was set for the medal hunt in the first full week, including “super Saturday” on July 27 when Canadian rowers and sprinters carry the nation’s hopes on their robust shoulders. But it was clear last week that, despite years of preparation, the hosts were not ready. Chief among the problems for both competitors and spectators: traffic, crowd control, ambush marketing, crime, security, accreditations. The list goes on, and it does not even include the oppressive heat (page 40). The swelter may have been at least partly to blame for two heart attacks, one of them fatal, during the opening ceremonies. Those incidents and the organi-

zational hassles eventually ceded the spotlight to the Games themselves and to the stars of the show—the athletes. Some, Canadian swimmer Joanne Malar among them, got off to early starts on the first day of competition. After so much buildup, the Olympics had finally begun.

The early action produced both star performances and pratfalls. Belgian swimmer Frederik Deburghgraeve set the first world record of the Games in the 100-m breaststroke. A defending Olympic judo champion from former Soviet Georgia lost his way and missed his contest. A Chinese marksman, defending the championship in his event, collapsed and had to be carried away after narrowly missing victory when his final shot went off target.

The start helped the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games

forget a bad week. Beneath the gloss of the opening ceremonies and the incessant tooting of the sponsors’ horns, there was confusion for the people who actually work at the Games. Officials, athletes and news media arrived in Georgia in their tens of thousands to find that many essential services were either unfinished, unreliable or unavailable. The Olympics’ bus system rarely ran on time. Security bottlenecks stalled crowds in the heat. The Canadian rowing team, trying to get to the Olympic Village from the rowing venue in Gainesville,

90 km northeast of Atlanta, waited 90 minutes for a bus. When it did arrive, there was such a crush of people that some team members did not get on.

Caught up in a large and determined group, single-sculler Silken Laumann was one of the few Canadians to make it on. “I was squished between a lot of Italians,” she said with a laugh, “and somehow I got loaded on the bus.”

Other shortcomings were equally trying. Some of the 197 national delegations and 14,500 accredited media lacked functioning telephones and computer systems right to the eve of the Games—ironic, considering that major telecommunications companies and the world’s largest computer firm are sponsors of the Atlanta Olympiad. The main accreditation centre at Hartsfield International Airport was thrown into chaos one day when the computerized registration system went down. And the computer e-mail and information systems crashed so frequently that organizers scrambled late last week to make amends.

The Atlanta Olympic committee’s worst failing, according to some senior officials, was that it devoted too much effort to servicing its many sponsors, and not enough to managing noncommercial duties. ACOG chief Billy Payne denies the claim and no high-ranking official would go on the record, but one International Olympic Committee official was clearly exasperated, fuming: “I don’t think there is one person on this organizing committee who knows the first thing about sport;

I don’t think they even care.”

Canada’s athletes kept any complaints to themselves. Springboard diver and first-time Olympian Annie Pelletier, despite a 2 1/2-hour accreditation wait and the loss of a piece of her luggage for 36 hours, took Atlanta in stride. “You have to expect this and you have to live with it,” the 22-year-old Montrealer said. ‘You have to think positive—it’s not good for me to get frustrated at the beginning of the Games.”

In fact, as the week went on,

visitors seemed to get caught up in the Olympic spirit— or, at least, in the pervasive party atmosphere. Schoolteacher and sports fan Angus Warner from Toronto—a city beaten out by Atlanta in bidding to host the 1996 Games—had such a good time partying with four buddies that he lamented: “Why didn’t Toronto get the Games?” Still, some Atlantans were clearly wishing Toronto had. For one local woman on a jammed subway car, the crushing rush-hour crowds were just too much.

“Why don’t all you people go back where you came from?” she shouted to no one in particular. ‘You’re all just visitin’, but we gotta live here—this is our train.”

Even the smooth machinery of corporate America hit snags. The first privately funded Olympics in history—a fact that Americans are proud to point out—is a take-no-prisoners commercial battle. Centennial Olympic Park, in the heart of downtown, is a veritable theme park for consumerism, where such official Olympic sponsors as Reebok, Swatch and Coca-Cola have their high-priced shops and corporate information booths. But on the skyline just beyond the park’s gates lurk the logos of so-called ambush marketers—companies such as shoe giant Nike, which have not paid a sponsorship fee to the Games, but hope to cash in anyway. Montrealer Dick Pound, the IOC vice-president who runs the committee’s marketing arm, was blunt in his criticism of such tactics. “It is unethical and unacceptable,” said Pound. “If we don’t stop it, it will diminish the value of Olympic sponsorship in the future.”

As the Games approached, however, Olympic organizers had other pressing concerns—namely, keeping

The reward is getting a chance to compete against the world’s best

athletes, officials and spectators safe in the city with the highest crime rate in the United States. Atlanta has become home to an unprecedented mix of law enforcement agencies. Beyond the nearly 1,100 Atlanta police, there are a roughly equal number of Georgia state officers and an ACOG-hired security staff of almost 2,700. Then, there are 14,000 national guard and federal army troops. A force of 1,100 foreign police officers, including several Canadians, also contribute to the security presence, helping guard sports venues in central Atlanta. And not all of them like it By midweek, some 150 international volunteer officers—most of whom took vacation time to work at the Games—packed up and left Their complaints: bad job postings, lax security measures and cramped housing in one of Atlanta’s most dangerous neighborhoods, their dorm windows reportedly strafed in a drive-by shooting.

The buzzword in security is “sanitization”—screening packages and vehicles for bombs and weapons. At entrances to public buildings and Olympic sites, luggage, bags and photo equipment are put through X-ray machines, and visitors must walk through metal detectors. Security staffers in parking garages interrogate drivers and army personnel inspect cars closely. The army, too, is involved in contingency planning—that is, preparing for the worst. Said spokesman Sgt.-Maj. Daniel Coberly: “We’re talking about anything from a thunderstorm to a hurricane, to heat stroke, sunstroke, food poisoning or a terrorist threat.”

After the crash of a TWA jet off Long Island, N.Y., two nights before the Olympics opened, and suspicions about the cause, terrorism seemed a very real threat in Atlanta. But ACOG president Payne declined to speculate on any connection between the suspected bombing and the Olympics. And although security was heightened at the airport, city officials seemed confident that existing measures in the Olympic Ring were adequate. “You can only do so much, because otherwise you become a prisoner of terrorism,” Mayor Bill Campbell said, “and people will not even be able to enjoy the presentation of these athletes, who have been working their entire lives for this moment in the sun.”

The tightest security protects the competitors housed in the

Olympic Village, which is ringed by razor wire and motion scanners. But inside, the athletes had other matters on their minds—their impending quest for Olympic glory. Canadian officials boldly predicted a record medal haul for Canada in Atlanta. Sue Hylland, technical officer for the Canadian Olympic Association (COA), suggested the team could win 20 to 22 medals, including eight golds, beating the best previous total in a non-boycotted Olympiad—18, in Barcelona four years ago. The next day, however, Canada’s first medal hopeful, the 20-year-old Malar, did not qualify for the final of her specialty, the 400-m individual medley. “Joanne didn’t blow up or anything,” said head swim coach Dave Johnson. “It’s not like she disgraced herself.”

Going into the competition, Canadian swimming officials were less optimistic than the COA Like other amateur organizations, the swim team has had to make do with less government funding as it prepared for Atlanta. “It has been a tough few years in terms of trying to keep the level of performances high while the funding drops,” says Johnson. “I hope we have seen the worst of it.” A greater impediment to Canadian success, however, awaited at the pool, where 20 or more countries could take medals in Atlanta. “There are a ton of great swimmers out there,” says Winnipeg’s Shannon Shakespeare, who finished 17th in the 100-m freestyle. “It’s an accomplishment just to make the final.”

The choice of the personable Crooks to carry the Canadian flag was hugely popular among her teammates, and it provided a counterpoint to the debate that followed comments attributed to sprint star Donovan Bailey about racism and sport (page 38). Crooks is an articulate, community-minded 800-m runner who, like Bailey, was born in Jamaica, and who moved to Canada with her parents when she was six years old. Chef de mission Michael Chambers told Maclean’s that he and two other senior COA officials decided two months ago to have Crooks, a five-time Olympian, lead the 307-member Canadian team into Olympic Stadium. ‘We looked at both her personal accomplishments and sports CV and we were unanimous,” Chambers said. “She is an exemplary athlete and an exemplary Canadian.”

Following the announcement, the 33-year-old North Vancouver resident said her appointment was both an honor and a responsibility. “I am carrying this flag for all of Canada and for all my teammates who worked so hard to get here,” she said. “I think this sends the message to kids that, hey, it doesn’t matter what color your skin is, where you come from, what language you speak. You can do whatever you want in Canada if you put your mind to it.”

Despite the politics and organizational difficulties of the Games, the competitions can be pure magic, especially for the Olympians. Atlanta offers a tantalizing opportunity for athletes from every country on earth to measure themselves against the very best. The challenge is both daunting and exhilarating. “You know,” says Annie Pelletier, “every time I wake up in the morning here, I say to myself, T am at the Olympic Games!’ ” More than the clarions at the opening ceremonies, her voice resounded with the wonder of it all.