Thrills but no frills at the sacrificial Games

Stephen Brenkley discovers the build-up to the Atlanta Olympics is less than ideal
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The Independent Online
For almost four years Jeff Maynard has prepared meticulously for the Olympic Games. He has made several small personal sacrifices along the way but he has never missed a session which mattered. Any spare time has been dedicated to the cause.

Sixty-four days from now Maynard will get his reward. He will be at the opening ceremony of the 26th Games in Atlanta. True, he will not see the colourful spectacle unfolding only yards away because he will be too busy helping participants into their uniforms. Such is life for those who slave behind the scenes, whether at a village fete or the largest sporting gathering in history.

"I won't be able to get more than a glimpse at what's happening, but it is the opening ceremony, what everybody's been waiting for since we were awarded the Games," Maynard said. "Quite honestly, I'm thrilled at being there. It was what we were promised if we put in a certain number of hours."

Stumbling across Maynard in the Olympic Centre in downtown Atlanta would be enough, momentarily, to persuade anybody that the modern Games had lost their way. They are supposed to be about sponsorship, television rights, franchises, a certain soft drink, and gold medals worth millions. And yet there was Maynard, a volunteer, who has provided his services for nothing for at least four hours a week for four years because he believes in the Olympic ideal, thrilled that Atlanta is staging the event and proud that his employers, Delta Airlines, are one of the main sponsors.

"This is only going to happen once in my lifetime," he said. "I was never going to compete in it but I wanted to take part in it."

It may be necessary to remember the stirring example of people like Maynard when the show at last starts. The Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games need a total of 42,500 volunteer workers and are far from finding them. This is because there are some 46,200 paid jobs being offered, largely by those running the concession stands. There may be areas of conflict: ACOG need to sell T-shirts and tickets but Coca-Cola need to sell coke.

Although much attention hasbeen paid to the city's resemblance to a building site, mostly because vast areas of it are a building site, few seem to doubt that it will be ready. "The work might not all be finished on every structure but I guess they can cover that up with flags and pennants," said the infectiously enthusiastic Maynard.

As the big day approaches - and it is being counted down by the second on the digital clock in the Games Centre on Peachtree Street - other potential friction is being revealed. The little matter of nearby Cobb County, which was denied the privileges both of staging an event and having the Olympic torch carried through it after its burghers issued a public pronouncement against homosexuality, may have been resolved. Rumblings of racial tension have not. Claims were reiterated in city centre demonstrations last week that some of the very poor, most of them black, have been forced to move out of their already squalid homes to make way for Olympic sites.

For three weeks in high summer at least Atlanta intends to circumvent this by presenting a smiling face. In the past it has billed itself as the city too busy to hate, a slogan recurring ad tedium on a tour of the Heritage Row museum. By way of demonstrating that this happy state still exists, the Ambassador Force of Downtown Atlanta has just been established in time for the Olympics. Its members are quasi policemen. They point you in the correct direction and tell you the time but they have no powers of arrest. Wearing pristine white shirts, pith helmets and constant smiles, they patrol the city centre offering warm greetings to passers-by.

Based on a random poll conducted at a baseball match it seems that prosperous, middle-class Atlanta is pleased to have the Games without being fixated. While they happily profess not to be aficionados of track and field, they are worried about the brand new Olympic Stadium, which will probably be completed in the nick of time.

The concern has nothing to do with the fact that the arena will have staged only three athletics events of any kind before its running track is taken up forever. It has everything to do with the fact that it will become the new home of the Atlanta Braves, replacing the perfectly presentable, 30-year-old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium next door, which will be demolished to make way for a car park.

This was part of the deal when the Olympics were being sought. Since then, however, the Braves have started winning. Last autumn they secured their first World Series in the Atlanta-Fulton County. Change ball parks, goes the consensus, and you might change fortunes. If that happens, even Jeff Maynard may not remember the Games with affection.

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