July 21, 1996 in Nation/World

Strenuous Workout - For Fans Visitors Struggle With Heat, Humidity, Stalled Traffic

William Booth And Thomas Heath Washington Post
 

For the billions watching the Olympic Games on television, there were cool blue swimming pools and the first glint of gold, but for the spectators and revelers in the host city, Saturday was a giant traffic jam of emotions - a sweaty, crowded, giddy, chaotic but classically American event.

The first gold medal of the Games went to Renata Mauer of Poland, who won with a final, near-perfect shot in the women’s 10-meter air rifle.

And perhaps this was solace. An official of Poland’s Olympic team was the first fatality of the Games. Evgeniusz Pietrasik, the chef de mission, died of a heart attack on the Olympic Stadium infield during the Opening Ceremonies late Friday night.

As the Games began Saturday - for baseball, field hockey, gymnastics, shooting, soccer, water polo and swimming - Atlanta’s six-year preparation for the Centennial Olympics was put to the ultimate test.

It was crowded. Then it was really, really hot. Then it rained. With lightning. Then Arnold Schwarzenegger showed up.

Based on a random group of spectators interviewed at venues, bars, buses and on the streets, the capital of the New South got a B-minus on its first day as host to the world. That’s not bad. There is hope for improvement.

“Unfortunately, we’re not as smart at the beginning as we’re gonna be at the end,” said Robert Brennan, director of communications for the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG).

So far, the biggest headaches are caused by the heat and transportation snarls - made worse by the intense security arrangements, which seem to delay everyone.

The defending Olympic heavyweight judo champion, David Khakhaleichvili of Georgia, went to the wrong weigh-in station, had to forfeit his first-round match, and when he returned to the athletes’ Olympic Village, he was delayed by a bomb threat.

When Billy Payne, chairman of ACOG, sold Atlanta to the International Olympic Committee, he billed the average July temperature at 78. He must have been checking his thermometer at midnight.

Saturday’s high was 93 degrees. With the humidity, meteorologists called it an even 100 on the heat index - a temperature-humidity formula.

The crowds stumbling into the air-conditioned sports arenas to watch boxing and swimming looked like refugees who’d tramped across some desert, many of them dressed in khaki shorts (the uniform of the city’s volunteers) and clutching plastic bottles of water. “They have that dazed look,” said Shelly Wyles, hawking soda water and fruit cups on the street corner.

But inside, in the deliriously tempting pools, Belgium’s Fred Deburghgraeve set a world record in the 100-meter breaststroke. There were more surprises and setbacks, too. Three of China’s four women swimmers failed to make it past preliminary heats. Only world-record holder Le Jingyi advanced in the 100-meter freestyle.

In the ring, a 19-year-old U.S. fighter from Philadelphia named Zahir Raheen hammered Hoe Jong-Gil of North Korea in the boxing openers. He won easily 19-4 as a crowd of flag-waving countrymen went nuts in the Alexander Memorial Coliseum.

But outside, the heat was taking its toll. Olympic officials said that first-aid stations were treating about 700 cases a day - mostly fans feeling woozy from the sun, fun and black asphalt.

“We’re trying to get into the game and watch it, but you can’t stop thinking about the heat,” said Suzanne Freeman, a hospital worker from Vienna, Va. “It’s hotter than D.C.”

The fabled “misters” of the games, which are designed to spritz a cooling fog over dazed patrons, seem to be operating more like “soakers.” But with a relative humidity of 51 percent, the misters are just spraying water. The air is already too wet to absorb the sprays.

During the first baseball game, held at the open-air Atlanta Fulton County Stadium, paramedics treated more than 200 people with heat-related problems by midday, according to Gregory Bach.

“I didn’t expect this many,” said Bach, on his way to deliver a baby after handling an ankle fracture. “We’ve referred some heat cases to the hospital, but we’ve been really lucky that none were too serious.”

Outside the stadium, Atlanta emergency technician Thomas Doyle knelt in front of a lethargic little boy covered in a cold towel and sipping water. “People are getting severe headaches, they stop sweating and are getting red skin,” Doyle said. People forget, he said. “We’re in Hotlanta.”

The heat wasn’t the only challenge. Getting to the venues could be an event in itself. Atlanta, like most American cities, is car-obsessed and car-dependent - a city where the idea of walking a dozen blocks, in July, strikes many locals as insane.

The baseball game between the United States and Nicaragua, scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium started a half-hour late because a bus driver from Memphis got lost and took the U.S. baseball team on a tour of the streets of Atlanta, according to one stadium volunteer.

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