TWA crash adds to the nerves

ATLANTA 96: Despite security fears 'Dream Team' leader shows there is no business like business
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The Independent Online
The mid-morning temperature was already climbing towards the 90s in Olympic Centennial Park, the corporate playground at the city centre.

Family groups queued to have pictures taken on the Roman-style steps advantageously placed beside the bronze of the Games's modern founder, Baron Pierre de Coubertin.

A group of exquisitely robed Indians waited to perform traditional music beneath a banner proclaiming "AT&T Welcomes You To The World." One of the Indian women, clasping a huge fan of feathers, drew deeply on a cigarette.

Two hundred yards further on, Games volunteers were asking visitors to stand aside to allow the progress of a marching band arrayed with white- feathered hats bearing golden Olympic rings. "Tight, tight, tight," the bandleader hissed to his followers. "Tighten it up."

It was a message that resounded through Atlanta yesterday as the city, the country, the world waited for tonight's opening of the Centennial Games.

The reverberations of the TWA crash were quickly felt at the Games. Don Mischer, executive director of the organising committee, admitted that the explosion off the Florida coast had created extra strain in Atlanta. "What happened last night at JFK airport did create a little more anxiety on our part," he said. "But I have worked with heads of state and I've never seen security as tight as it is around the Olympic stadium.''

There were plenty of other sources of anxiety for Mischer as he prepared to co-ordinate the efforts of 5,500 performers and a backstage crew of 2,100 for today's Opening Ceremony in front of an audience which will include the President.

"I worry about whether we will be able to get all the performers in the right places," Mischer said. "I worry about losing the Olympic flag. I worry about the flame going out.''

The fact that five competing nations were still unconfirmed was news to him. Not good news. But in the circumstances, not that bad news either.

The preoccupation of the US press centred around the use of pick-up trucks during a section of the main display, and their suggestion of an unwelcome redneck image.

Mischer strongly denied the charge, pointing out that the vans were simply being used to transport heavy lights around the arena for a couple of minutes. He did, however, express regret that the van manufacturers General Motors, one of the main Olympic sponsors, had gained publicity from the situation.

Next preoccupation up was the South's history of slavery. Had it been addressed in the ceremony?

"That's a tough issue to create entertainment and spectacle out of," Mischer replied, although he pointed to elements in the display which could be construed as referring to the issue. Softly, softly round the issues.

The main sporting attraction in town yesterday was a far more boisterous press conference involving the US basketball team.

Shaquille O'Neal, the tallest and probably the richest member of the US Olympic team, declined to answer any questions on the subject of money and his move to the Los Angeles Lakers. "You'll have to come to my Reebok press conference later today," he said.

But news had already leaked out. At a stroke, the cheapest ticket prices for the Lakers next season rose from $9.50 to $21.

As the Olympic movement gathers itself for its 100th anniversary celebrations, the business of business goes on.