Olympic Games: Ideals left behind in the Atlanta gold rush

Ken Jones, at his last Olympics, blames the IOC for logistical failures at a ludicrously bloated Games
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When bringing Atlanta 1996 to a close, the International Olympic Committee president, Juan Antonio Samaranch, discreetly avoided a line he has grown accustomed to delivering.

Not since the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville went close to be an operational disaster would the words "best ever" have sounded less appropriate.

In describing the Games as "exceptional" Samaranch put a curse on Atlanta's effort. Records were set, most thrillingly by Michael Johnson and Donovan Bailey; packed venues, greater numbers of athletes and spectators than ever before; Southern hospitality; the unfailing patience of harassed volunteers.

But despite the relentlessly upbeat claims of its president, Billy Payne - "the success of these Games is how the athletes and the community feel about them" - the Atlanta organising committee for the Olympic Games (Acog) was not up to staging an event that has ballooned to ludicrous proportions.

Everything becomes clearer in hindsight, but Atlanta will go down in the history of the Summer Games as a city that failed to produce an enlightened strategy. The city of Coca-Cola, CNN and baseball's world champion Braves, claiming to be the new gateway of US commerce, simply was not big enough or experienced enough.

Payne bristled at criticism from IOC members and the media. However, it was soon obvious that a warning issued last year - "it isn't going to work" Acog were informed by event consultants - had fallen on deaf ears.

Traffic ground to a standstill; athletes and around 5,000 media representatives raged at mounting difficulties in transportation; information services broke down, causing the giant IBM corporation acute embarrassment. The inevitable comparisons with Barcelona in 1992 and Seoul four years earlier were constantly damning.

In one important respect Payne got away with it. Having persuaded the IOC to accept an average July temperature in Atlanta of 78F he was blessed with cooler conditions than he and many competitors feared. The threat of dehydration did not materialise. The Summer Games leads normally sensible people to suspend conservative thinking on infrastructure and allow the raising of facilities they can hardly afford.

Barcelona's triumph stemmed partly from municipal input that enabled the construction of a strategic highway that left the city's historic centre untouched. Campaigning on a "good for business ticket", Acog instead sought and gained the support of local corporate entrepreneurs. As one stern critic put it, what resulted was gold-rush fever.

Prices soared in a glut of profiteering, a giant Coca-Cola bottle symbolised rampant commercialism; streets within the city's Olympic circle, created partly by the bulldozing of a black neighbourhood, were given a county-fair atmosphere by tatty vending outlets. Then came the crude bomb placed in Centennial Park that left Atlanta horror-struck, taking the life of a woman and injuring many others.

What has to be addressed is the IOC's role in all this. In allowing the Games to become cluttered with sports that would, more or less, pass unnoticed in normal circumstances it has cheapened the Olympic ethos.

Neither do we know how determined the IOC is to stamp out chemically assisted performance. At a press conference held in London shortly before the Games, Samaranch declared himself in ignorance of an underground pamphlet setting out infallible masking procedures that was available to athletes in Barcelona.

Rumours of a "big catch" in Atlanta came to nothing but as Charles E Yesalis, who is professor of health and human development at Pennsylvania University, told the New York Times, expenditure of $2m (pounds 1.3m) on drug detection announced by the IOC earlier this year is a small commitment from an organisation that runs a billion-dollar business. "If the IOC is serious about the problem, it would spend much more on research, so that substances like human growth hormone [used to augment strength] could also be detected," he said.

According to Yesalis, new hi-tech testing equipment is worthless in many cases. Synthetic testosterone, he says, can be delivered via barely detectable creams and skin patches. Creatine, which replenishes energy stores in muscles, is not even banned because it is found in food, but to equal the usual dose an athlete would have to eat 20 pounds of meat daily. "If the IOC can't do better than this, all we will see is another failed solution," Yesalis added.

On one point at least everyone can agree. Atlanta was not without thrills: Johnson's unique double with a world record in the 200 metres; Carl Lewis's remarkable Olympic career ended with a fourth consecutive gold in the long jump - an athlete beyond comparison in his spheres.

A few hours before the closing ceremony, Johnson and the Olympic decathlon champion, Dan O'Brien, visited Muhammad Ali at a hotel in Atlanta. The sight of a sadly stricken Ali trembling as he ignited the Olympic flame two weeks ago troubled some of us deeply. A symbol of sporting greatness nevertheless.

O'Brien's eyes were filled with admiration for the man who was his boyhood hero. Ali spoke just one word. "Age," he mumbled. Life's reality.

Personally speaking, Atlanta was my last Olympics. All things considered, in the context of past experiences, it was a bum note to go out on.