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1996 Olympic Preview: Atlanta's Other Athletes

BECAUSE of factors beyond its organizers' control, the 1996 Atlanta Olympics will be held in the dead of summer - July 20 to Aug. 4. The availability of housing and facilities necessitated the call.

Given the intense heat and humidity common then, it's not surprising that the South is doing a brisk business booking national Olympic teams. Many plan to arrive early to get acclimated.

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While Atlanta's summer may be hard on human athletes, it could be harder on the horses in equestrian events. Horses are not as well suited to making the necessary physical adjustments, New Scientist reported in its March issue.

In 1992, several horses collapsed during the cross-country phase of the three-day eventing competition in the Barcelona, Spain, Olympics. That raised the concern of the equestrian community and the International Olympic Committee. The IOC gave the sport's international governing body until September to come up with ways to help prevent heat stress in horses. A failure to do so could result in eliminating three-day eventing from the Olympic program, according to New Scientist.

Veterinarians and exercise physiologists from several countries are working to find ways to keep the horses cool.

One logical first step is to create a longer rest period during the taxing third day of what has come to be a four-day competition. That's when the horses are run through a series of tests, including a 14-minute cross-country gallop preceded by a short, 10-minute rest.

A field test of scientific theories relating to the stamina of horses in hot weather will be conducted this summer in Georgia. Leo Jeffcoat, chief veterinarian of the Federation Equestre Internationale, says that if ``appropriate assurances'' can't be given by those conducting the study, the group would recommend that three-day eventing be scratched.

Three-day eventing could be farmed out to a more northern location (equestrian events for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics were held in Stockholm), but that option has little support.

Paralympics coming on

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By now, just about everybody realizes that Atlanta will host the centennial Olympics in 1996. What few people realize is that just 12 days after the Games close, the city will bring on another Olympic-type event with 4,000 elite international athletes. The 16-sport Paralympic Games will look roughly similar, only they will be for athletes with a physical disability that precludes them from Olympic competition.

The Paralympics are not new; they began in 1960 in Rome. They are clearly growing, though, and in Atlanta will likely attract one-third the number of athletes who will participate in the Olympics.

Corporate sponsorship has also assumed greater prominence. The Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Company has come aboard as a ``worldwide sponsor.''

Andy Fleming, president of the Atlanta Paralympic Organizing Committee, says the Paralympics offer ``a major opportunity for corporations to capitalize on both the business and social issues represented by the Paralympics'' and to connect with disabled Americans and their families.

The Paralympics receive little television exposure, yet attendance figures hint at the potential for attracting viewers. Organizers in Atlanta hope soon to sign a national TV deal that could include significant weekend network coverage. More than 1.5 million spectators showed up over the 12-day Paralympics in Barcelona - this shortly after the city lavished attention on the Olympics for 16 days.

Brian Williams, a spokesman for National Handicapped Sports in Rockville, Md., says that disabled sports are much more popular with European audiences than American ones. ``They're probably 10 years ahead of us as far as public interest goes,'' he says.

Atlanta will be the fifth city to host the Paralympics and Olympics in the same year.

The performance differences between the athletes in the two competitions is sometimes not as great as people might imagine. For example, double-leg, below-the-knee amputee Tony Volpentest of Mountlake Terrace, Wash., ran the 100-meter dash in the Barcelona Paralympics in 11.63 seconds, faster than the winning time of 12 seconds flat in the first modern Olympics held in Athens in 1896. And in the single-amputee, above-the-elbow category, Ajibola Adoeye of Nigeria smoked the field sans prosthesis with a time of 10.72 seconds.

Centennial fete

The International Olympic Committee generally conducts its business with little fanfare. That will not be the case this summer, however, as the IOC celebrates the 100th anniversary of the modern Olympic movement when it convenes for the 12th Olympic Congress in Paris. The Olympic flame will be flown in from Greece for the Aug. 29 opening ceremony.

The Olympic flag, meanwhile, will arrive in the hands of a mountain climber rappelling down the side of the Eiffel Tower. Other activities planned to accompany the four-day working session are a triathlon, a track meet, a table-tennis match, and a college rowing race between Britain's Oxford and Cambridge universities.

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