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Love fest for Olympic guests

Bay area and Tampa 2012 officials make a big fuss over the committee members, who keep their thoughts to themselves.

By KATHRYN WEXLER

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 4, 2001


Bay area and Tampa 2012 officials make a big fuss over the committee members, who keep their thoughts to themselves.

TAMPA -- Was it a case of love at first sight during the U.S. Olympic Committee's visit Friday to the Tampa Bay area?

Trying to read their poker faces was like trying to predict the medal winners during opening ceremonies.

But from all the hype, backslapping and spin, you certainly would think the Tampa Bay area fell in love with the committee.

"They're all warm, charming, warm people," said Ed Turanchik, the former Hillsborough County commissioner leading the effort to bring the Olympics to Tampa.

"I think they're surprised our plan is so compact."

In a day as much about ceremony as substance, Gov. Jeb Bush publicly welcomed the committee in the lobby of a downtown high-rise, where several hundred spectators gathered along with a clutch of reporters and TV cameras.

Along with better schools and lowering the crime rate, Bush said, there's something else he wants as part of his legacy: "That we're the host of the 2012 Olympics."

More than 100 spectators, peering down from the second-floor bannister at One Tampa City Center, hooted and clapped.

Tampa Mayor Dick Greco got on his knees to sign an oversized reproduction of a promise from the state to help bring the Games to Tampa.

"We're the first state to back it up," Bush said.

The afternoon even had a name: "Celebrate the Journey Tour," Turanchik bellowed into the microphone. The sun was shining despite threats from Tropical Storm Barry, Turanchik said happily.

The hoopla had officially begun.

Committee members were ferried in a bus with a display, "Friends." The media, forbidden by the committee to ask any questions, lumbered behind obediently in another bus.

"We're not going to let our hometown press mess it up," Turanchik snapped after a TV reporter sidled up to the committee chairman, microphone in hand.

The committee was given a long look at the Hillsborough River, where rowing events will take place should Tampa win the Games.

Then it was on to the proposed Olympic Village site, now decaying public housing. The sea-green projects, with plywood covering the windows of some units, would eventually be replaced with new homes and a huge stadium. The buses didn't dally.

After breezing through Ybor City, they headed to the Florida State Fairgrounds, where the committee was asked to imagine two new stadiums, one for field hockey, the other for team handball. Cyclists, too, would compete here.

A handful of former Olympic athletes greeted the committee, as they would at every stop, and applauded. The committee clapped back.

Back on the buses, the committee was taken on a cruise of Bayshore Boulevard, the imaginary marathon route. At MacDill Air Force Base they filed into a tent onto an archery field.

Tampa police Chief Bennie Holder urged committee members to consider that the Tampa Police Department wanted a gun range, and if the Olympics were to come to Tampa, they'd get one.

He called it a "win-win," situation a half-dozen times.

The buses headed across the Gandy Bridge and meandered through the brick streets of northeast St. Petersburg before rolling onto the artificial turf at Tropicana Field.

A swell of triumphant music arose. On the stadium's massive screen were displayed images of the committee getting off the bus.

Though the members smiled politely at times and appeared bored at others, they gave little indication what they were thinking.

In public, they asked few questions. They already had toured Washington, D.C., Dallas, Houston, Cincinnati and New York, five of the seven other cities vying to host the 2012 Games. Two other cities, San Francisco and Los Angeles, are next.

The nine-member committee reports back to a board of directors, which will select the U.S. candidate for the 2012 Games in October 2002. That city will compete against international cities. The winning city will be chosen by the International Olympic Committee in September 2005.

Friday, committee members were privately briefed on the area's roads, sports facilities, housing and transportation strategies. "I can't say there are any concerns," Turanchik said later. He said, nevertheless, that they had "a lot of questions about infrastructure."

Finally, at the Bayfront Center in St. Petersburg, the committee was greeted by nearly 100 residents in international costumes who, like everyone else, applauded them.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker then proclaimed Aug. 3 as "2012 Olympic Vision Day" and handed committee chairman Charles Moore a book the mayor wrote on St. Petersburg.

It was finally time for Moore to make a statement. Cameras rolled.

"We love your colors, we love your uniforms," Moore said. "You have a wonderful city . . . and we look forward to building a long-term and very special relationship."

There were audible sighs of delight.

But those were tempered with murmurs of concern. Local organizers throughout the day said in hushed tones that the committee's flight to Tampa on Thursday night had been delayed three hours.

Could that be blamed for their cancellation Friday night of dinner at Big City Tavern restaurant in Ybor City? Or could it mean something more sinister?

Terri Parnell, the media relations official for Tampa 2012, thought a moment.

"They're just tired," she concluded.

- Kathryn Wexler can be reached at (813) 226-3383.

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