A brewing rebellion by Olympic athletes against transport troubles and other glitches is dramatizing a logistical nightmare that threatens to overwhelm the global camaraderie and goodwill of the opening phase of the Atlanta Games.
The tensions came to a head following an incident involving a group of British, Ukrainian and Polish rowers who blocked the route of a shuttle bus Sunday leaving Olympic Village in downtown Atlanta. They commandeered the vehicle and forced the driver to change his destination from the field hockey venue to their rowing site at Lake Lanier.
In an unusual public criticism, the International Olympic Committee sharply reprimanded the Atlanta organizers today for the failures in transportation and information systems at the Games that have delayed athletes from reaching competition sites and slowed the reporting of results.
At a testy meeting this morning with Mayor Bill Campbell and directors of the Atlantic Committee for the Olympic Games, IOC officials said the organizers were given a blunt warning to resolve the problems immediately or face the risk that the Games would turn into a fiasco.
"They have got to learn some lessons very fast," said Kevan Gosper, an IOC vice president. "The first is the need for proper training of the transport personnel, the second is to coordinate the mechanics of moving the athletes around. I hope that Atlanta can master these problems quickly, but I must say I'm not too optimistic."
Gosper, an Australian who led the campaign to bring the 2000 Games to Sydney, said IOC officials now realize that Atlanta's landlocked location may have contributed to its logistical troubles.
"We should recognize that proximity to the sea or river can greatly help handling huge flows of people," he said. "I think you may see that view reflected in future decisions where the Olympics will take place."
Mayor Campbell, pointing to the smooth rush-hour traffic flow this morn ing on the first day when commuters were supposed to collide with the Olympic transport system, fired back at those who were complaining about logistics.
"They should take the critics out to the shooting venue and get rid of them," he said jokingly to a local television station.
Since the Games opened, Atlanta's creaking public transport system has come close to a physical breakdown. The subway system is groaning under the daily weight of a half million passengers, triple its normal load.
The city center has been paralyzed by gridlock because the organizers never anticipated that hundreds of thousands of visitors would throng Centennial Park, a sprawling concrete and brick plaza where Olympic memorabilia is sold during the day and musical entertainment is offered at night. As a result, the city has been forced to scrap its traffic control plan and transform key thoroughfares into pedestrian zones to cope with the tourists.
But the biggest disruption for the Games has emanated from the vast bus network that was supposed to shuttle athletes, officials, journalists and spectators to the 11 competition sites.
Many of the 3,000 bus drivers were brought into Atlanta from out of town and seem unfamiliar with the streets or locations of venues. About 50 of them already have walked off their jobs in disgust, complaining of exhaustion or harassment.
Stories abound of decrepit buses breaking down or exploding into flames; of drivers bursting into tears because they are traumatized by unfamiliar highways or simply leaving the keys in the ignition and fleeing.
"We're dealing with 10,000 athletes, more than ever before, and the Atlanta organizers came up short by about nine hundred buses," said Dick Schultz, executive director of the U.S. Olympic Committee. "It would be a shame given all the hard work that Atlanta has done if such problems are not resolved, but it needs to be cleared up fast or it will be disastrous for the Games."
Organizers have promised the IOC and the athletes to find speedy remedies to the transport problems. They said that navigators would accompany out-of-town bus drivers to make sure they reach their destinations promptly.
The athletes are not the only ones complaining about organization at the Games. In Martin Luther King Jr.'s former neighborhood, a group of black business owners have threatened to sue the city because they say they were duped by false promises of an Olympic bonanza.
Scores of vendors invested hundreds of thousands of dollars hoping to capitalize on a street festival that would bring tourists to Ebenezer Baptist Church and other landmarks of King's life. But traffic along Auburn Avenue never was shut down as promised to serve as a pedestrian corridor.
"We were told that 100,000 to 150,000 people would come to Auburn Avenue every day," said Charles Johnson, head of Sweet Auburn Area Business Association. "We have black businessmen who are about to lose their shirts because the city is not supporting that program."
The businessmen planned to stage a protest march on Olympic headquarters, but the event was canceled when Andrew Young, co-chairman of ACOG, showed up in the neighborhood Sunday to discuss their problems.
"We know we don't have it all together yet in Atlanta," he said. "We're still right now shaking down the problems of the city and figuring out solutions. That's why we're here today."
Even though they had six years to prepare for the 2 million visitors who have descended on Atlanta, Young and other leading ACOG members said they anticipated there would be unforeseen difficulties they would have to resolve on the spot.
"In many ways, we are a victim of our own success," Bob Brennan, spokesman for the Atlanta Games, said in an interview. "I admit there may have been some bad timing on our part. But you never get a chance for a trial run for an event of these proportions. Every Olympic city has faced problems in working out the bugs during the first few days, and we're confident that we are now getting things under control."
The athletes do not appear to share his confidence. Several of them have found their Olympic hopes endangered by logistical problems, and many say the arrangements have not met standards set by previous Olympics.
David Khakhaleichvili, a 1992 gold medalist in judo from the former Soviet republic of Georgia, lost the chance to defend his title when he got caught in traffic and missed the weigh-in.
A bus carrying Canadian fencer James Ransom got lost Saturday and made it to the event only 10 minutes before his match, which he lost. An ambulance that was supposed to rush injured judo athlete Eric Krueger of Austria to the hospital broke down and the replacement could not reach him because it lacked the proper credential.
But the worst travails have been suffered by Olympic rowers. "It took us four years to get here," said British rower Steven Redgrave, who is seeking his fourth gold medal. "We're not going to let someone's organization stop us now."
Redgrave's teammate, Alison Gill, was so distraught that she decided to lead a revolt with several rowers from Ukraine and Poland in seizing control of a bus that was headed toward a field hockey venue.
"We stood in the middle of the road and stopped all the buses going through in order to commandeer the first bus to come through," Gill said. "The police were screaming at us to get out of the road, but soon enough one came along but the poor victim was going to the hockey field. So we piled on board and informed him he was now going to Lake Lanier."
British Olympic officials said the altercation was resolved peacefully, but acknowledged that the transport problem had evolved into a serious disruption for the athletes. They said that rather than take their chances on Atlanta's transport system in the future, the British rowers decided to move out of Olympic Village to a hotel -- right next door to their competition site at Lake Lanier. Staff writer Athelia Knight contributed to this story. CAPTION: This bus carrying journalists, being worked on by a tow-truck driver, broke down for more than an hour and blocked traffic in downtown Atlanta.