Newest Sport on World Stage: Atlanta Bashing


Felipe "The Cool" Munoz, a former Olympic swimmer who heads Mexico's delegation to the Atlanta Games, was a little annoyed when he waited in line five hours to get accredited before the opening ceremonies--a process he told reporters should have taken 15 minutes, at most.

Munoz was even more dismayed when disorganization at the opening ceremonies so delayed one of his athletes that the athlete tripped and nearly fell rushing to enter the stadium. But according to reports reaching the Mexican capital, Munoz was most aggrieved by the cockroaches in the rooms at the Olympic Village.

"Bad hygiene," he complained.

And so it shouldn't have been surprising that on Tuesday night, viewers in Mexico saw a special report on the independent TV Azteca network in which commentators from throughout Latin America complained about Atlanta's "Third World" conditions.

With the Centennial Olympic Games nearing their midway point, the perception around the world has been much the same, with the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games projecting an image of bumbling and indifference.

"They have blown their once-in-a-lifetime chance here," Toronto Star columnist Dave Perkins reported to readers in Canada. "Atlanta will forever be remembered as a huge, embarrassing, traffic-clogged mistake, populated by grinning volunteers whose training seemed to be limited to gushing at everyone and saying, 'Y'all have a nice day.' "

China's official People's Daily newspaper described the organizing committee as "like an elephant's behind that would not move when pushed."

"It's chaotic. . . . It's a disaster," said Nashwa Abdel-Tawab, a sports reporter for Al-Ahram Weekly in Cairo. "Egypt could host it better."

One of the few good things people in the international sports community have had to say about the organization of these Games is that it gives hope to cities traditionally dismissed as unprepared to host an Olympics. No one else, they suggest, could possibly do worse than Atlanta.

Argentine President Carlos Menem, referring to a prospective bid by Buenos Aires to host future Games, pointedly told reporters, "Buenos Aries can do an even better job with the Olympics."

France-Soir, a Paris daily that awarded Atlanta the "Gold Medal for Chaos," noted, "Africa has been deprived of the Games since their creation with the pretext that African countries don't have the necessary infrastructure. . . . After Atlanta, any country in the world can apply to host the Games."

Most of the vituperation is aimed at the monumental transportation gridlock, which has panicked athletes and frustrated journalists and visitors. An editorial in the London Daily Telegraph commented that the Greek soldier who ran 25 miles from Marathon to Athens in 490 B.C. and inspired the original Olympians might have completed his journey faster than the daily commute of Atlanta's athletes from the village to the rowing site, about 65 miles from Atlanta.

But critics also have focused on the failure of IBM's heavily touted computer system to deliver accurate, timely results to the media; the jingoism of American crowds; commercialism surrounding the Games and even the food in the Olympic Village.

Brian Williams, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. anchor in Atlanta, told viewers that the computer system was reporting "results" of events that had yet to be contested. The European broadcasting consortium that paid $250 million for television rights to the Games is seeking a partial refund on grounds that results are not being delivered as promised.

German reporters describe Olympic crowds as apathetic or rude to any competitor not wearing the red, white and blue.

"Los Angeles in 1984 made history as the most chauvinistic Games in Olympic history," said one story in Nordwest Zeitung in Oldenburg, Germany. "Since then, there doesn't seem to be any improvement in the knowledge of mainstream America about the rest of the world or in their manners toward guests from other cultures."

In Russia, the media accuse the U.S. of reviving the Bad Old Days of Soviet-American antagonism.

Commented the respected evening newspaper Izvestia, "The previous Olympic Games on American soil were held 12 years ago in Los Angeles. Then, the Cold War was in full swing, which made [America] fixated on all things American and only American. . . . Now there is no Cold War, but the fixation remains."

The gold medal in the complainathon, however, goes to China.

Beijing blames the United States for its failure to get the 2000 Olympics and for sparking the drug use investigation into the Chinese women's swimming team. On top of the usual complaints about Atlanta, China's news is full of conspiracy theories about efforts to sabotage Chinese competitors, who are performing below expectations.

One arena suffered a power outage just before a Chinese marksman was about to shoot, causing him to faint from the heat and the pressure. A Chinese weightlifter was the only one to not receive an all-clear signal allowing him to release his weights, forcing him to stand for 20 seconds with 375 pounds above his head. A midnight fire alarm jarred swimmers out of bed the day before competition, depriving them of crucial sleep.

"They never explained what happened to us," China's Olympic Committee leader, Wei Jizhong, said at a news conference. "It makes one think."

Most appalling to a culture in which people greet each other by asking, "Have you eaten?" is the food in the Olympic Village--or lack of it.

"The Olympic Village has prepared food for every country, except for China. Our athletes are starving," said a television commentator.

The competitors were surviving on hamburgers and Korean pickles and instant noodles in the dormitory, the newscast said, showing their nearly empty plates.

Eventually, the delegation hit on a solution: Chinese takeout.

Times staff writers Fineman reported from Mexico City and Farley from Beijing. Also contributing were Times staff writers Vanora Bennett in Moscow, John Daniszewski in Cairo, Sebastian Rotella in Buenos Aires, William Tuohy in London and Craig Turner in Toronto, along with Christian Retzlaff and Petra Falkenberg of the Times Berlin Bureau and Michael Stroh of the Times Tokyo bureau.

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