Atlanta Crams for the Olympics

With 22 days to go, construction is in high drive and so is the heat

The steady pounding of jackhammers reverberates on nearly every street corner. Debris and dust float through the air and gently fall on pedestrians. Every day a new fountain, bench, or tree goes up somewhere in the city.

Atlanta is cramming.

With 22 days and counting until the summer Olympic Games begin on July 19, the Southern metropolis is rushing to ready for 2 million visitors, nearly 11,000 athletes, and several thousand more news media types.

From a casual viewer's perspective, the task appears daunting. Sidewalks along a number of avenues are torn up, blocks of downtown storefronts remain unfinished, and the main gathering place for visitors - Centennial Olympic Park - is still under heavy construction.

The somewhat chaotic appearance of the city and the frenzied pace of construction is prompting the usual pre-Olympic question: Will the city be ready to welcome the world in just three weeks?

"We remain on time and on schedule," Billy Payne, president of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG), told reporters last week. "Folks are not going to believe us until everybody shows up and sees Atlanta fully prepared, festively adorned, organized well, and ready to care for the needs of athletes, the Olympic family, and the many spectators."

Indeed, most host cities end up playing roulette with the clock to finish on time.

"I've been to a lot of Olympic Games, and there's always nails being hammered two hours before the opening ceremonies," says Philip Hersh, Olympic sports writer for the Chicago Tribune. "If you'd gone to Barcelona three weeks before the Olympics and stood still for more than five minutes you would have been painted," he quips.

Construction isn't the only thing in high drive here. Two other elements have been increasing as well: the mercury and a sense of anticipation that's palpable to residents and vistors alike.

"We came to check out the Olympic fever. It's crazy here," says Sarah Dawgert, who is visiting the city with her friend. Both are from Pennsylvania. "Everywhere you go someone is doing something Olympic-related. We don't know what Atlanta is like normally."

"The excitement is building," acknowledges Kim Ziegelmayer, who is hawking fresh lemonade to tourists and workers in Centennial Olympic Park. "I'm looking forward to the international flavor."

The rising thermometer may be giving people a taste of what could lie ahead during the Games. In the past 10 days Atlanta's daytime temperatures have soared to the mid-90s; factor in the humidity, and the Olympic City feels more like 100.

The searing sun and wilting temperatures seem to be topics on everyone's mind. On Tuesday, ACOG sponsored a "handling the heat" workshop for media.

"Heat is no stranger to the Olympic Games," reminded John Cantwell, ACOG chief medical officer. "In 1901 it was 102 degrees in Paris during the men's marathon." What is unique in Atlanta is the effort to beat the heat, he says.

Water will be everywhere, from temporary water "bubblers" to 400-gallon water "buffaloes" that can be resupplied by local sources. Chilli necks - material filled with silicone beads that expand when placed in water - will cool the necks of staff assigned to outdoor locations.

At venues, staff will routinely make announcements over the public address system to encourage spectators to drink fluids. As the temperature rises, the announcements will become more frequent. Giant fans that spray mist to cool athletes and spectators will also be placed at various locations. And the Red Cross will be distributing sunscreen and wide-brimmed hats.

Some, however, say the sultry Atlanta summers have an upside.

"You can't move around like you can up North," says Ms. Ziegelmayer, who is from Rhode Island. "It means a different work pace - a little slower, which is good."

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