Early Hurdles for Olympic Spectators

Despite complaints about a shortage of rooms, Atlanta organizers say plenty will be available

FOR an athlete to get into the Olympics requires world-class discipline and strength. But sports aficionados hoping to secure an early seat to watch the games in Atlanta next summer are finding it takes Olympian patience and persistence.

Take, for example, the hurdle-hopping exercise of high school student J.C. Safar.

On May 1, ticket forms were distributed to supermarkets and Home Depot stores around the country. But Mr. Safar, who lives in a Minneapolis suburb, had to hunt to find a store that had received its shipment of brochures. He and his younger sister filled out the form and express-mailed it the next morning.

But an even higher hurdle lay ahead: finding a hotel room.

Safar contacted more than 30 motels in the Atlanta suburbs only to discover all rooms had been booked or reservations weren't yet being accepted.

He was almost panic-stricken until he located an Atlanta outfit called International B&B Reservations on the Internet. Safar and his sister booked a room in someone's house for $200 a night, including breakfast.

''I was almost pulling my hair out because there was nothing, and I wanted to get something set up now,'' Safar says, adding: ''We're big fans of the Olympics. We want to go because it's coming to the United States and because it's the Centennial Games.''

As Safar and other fans prepare to come to Atlanta, they are doing so amid reports that rooms are booked as far away as Chattanooga, Tenn., and Birmingham, Ala.. There's concern that remaining rooms will be gobbled up by corporations willing to pay inflated prices and angry murmurings that the best tickets are being awarded to a growing number of VIPs.

''Everything I'm hearing is corporate, like the hotels have already been booked by corporations,'' says Jacqueline McCroskey, a claim adjuster for an insurance company in Cleveland, who plans to come to the Olympics with her husband and two children.

But Olympic experts say the perception that the Games are inaccessible to the average person is based more on fable than fact.

The public is ''misled by some of the exaggerations that are always part of the Games with regard to hotels, and transportation, and unfair distribution of tickets, of which there are elements of truth but not the full story,'' says John Lucas, a professor of sport history at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, Pa.

SOME 85,000 requests for tickets have been received by the Atlanta Olympics organizers. But there are 11.2 million tickets for sale, more than the number for the Los Angeles and Barcelona Games combined. Of those, about 4,000 are reserved for VIPs, who include corporate sponsors, international sports federations, the Olympic organizers, elected officials, and the media. Many of these tickets are for the most popular events, such as opening and closing ceremonies and finals in gymnastics and track and field. While the public does have access to these choice spots as well, the demand is high, and only a small percentage -- selected randomly -- will receive tickets.

''There are inequities,'' Dr. Lucas says. ''The corporate world is in part taking over the Olympics,'' especially in America where the government doesn't support the Games financially as other countries do.

''Corporations are paying 100 percent of the Atlanta Games,'' Lucas says. ''They feel from their perspective they want their just due.''

Despite this, says John Powers, Olympic beat writer for the Boston Globe since 1976, the sports fan will have greater access to Olympics tickets than he or she will have to other American sporting events such as the Super Bowl because of the variety and number of events. ''The public doesn't realize this,'' Mr. Powers says.

What Olympic early birds may not realize is that plenty of rooms are available, says Laurie Olsen, a communications director for the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games. ACOG has established a network of accommodations it will make available to ticket holders when they receive ticket confirmations this fall.

''What most hotels will say now is they're not taking reservations or they're booked when they're not because they know that people's plans change,'' Ms. Olsen says. ''They want to discourage speculative booking.''

Lucas says, based on his attendance at every summer Olympics since the 1960s, it's still possible for people to go at the last minute.

''I tell my students to just waltz down there in an auto with couple of friends, take a Red Roof Inn 50 miles out of town, eat at Burger King, and go to the Olympic statium at 9 in the morning and buy a $20 ticket,'' Lucas says. ''For all preliminaries there are plenty of seats, and they feature the same great athletes and teams as the finals,'' he says.

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