Originally created 07/04/99

Sweltering heat challenges athletes, volunteers



RALEIGH -- John Ahumble, a Special Olympian from Ghana, staggered across the finish line after completing the 1,500-meter run and fell to the ground, exhausted. A group of state National Guardsmen and medical volunteers helped him into a wheelchair and carted him off the track.

Korean Sung-Rye Song stumbled into the arms of another Guardsman after her event and had to be carried to a gurney set up under a shady tree. Medics forced her to drink cup after cup of ice water.

Ahumble and Song were just two of more than a dozen athletes who were overcome by the sweltering heat at the Special Olympics World Games track venue on Saturday. But on-site medical officials said the conditions were safe for the athletes, despite temperatures approaching the 90s.

"It's hot, it's miserable but it's not unhealthy," said Phil Gallagher, a USA Track and Field official working as a volunteer at the Paul Derr Track on the North Carolina State University campus. "If we had one episode that was outside of ordinary heat exhaustion, we would've shut down immediately. We have medical personnel all around the track and most of them are bored to death."

After each athlete finished his or her event on Saturday, a flock of Guardsmen and volunteers wearing Red Cross T-shirts would rush in, douse them with cups of water and soak them with spray bottles. Only one athlete, an Ugandan runner, required more advanced medical attention on Saturday morning, officials said.

"He was taken to Rex Hospital (in Raleigh) but it was purely as a precaution," said a physician dressed in military fatigues who asked not to be identified.

The high temperature had reached 89 degrees in Raleigh by noon on Saturday. But some officials were more concerned about the conditions of the volunteers than those of the athletes. Heat was believed to have contributed to the death of 62-year-old volunteer Neale Orrok, who collapsed last Saturday at the opening ceremonies.

"We watch the athletes like hawks to the point where they must be tired of us," Gallagher said. "But the volunteers are the ones out here all day and they're the ones who are actually more susceptible to the heat."

At the World Games Festival at nearby Meredith College, officials say they've treated more volunteers than athletes by a 2-to-1 ratio.

But not everyone is struggling with the heat. African athletes staying at the Barefoot Residence Hall at Meredith requested that the air conditioning in their rooms be shut off.

"Most people aren't that well-equipped to deal with heat," Guy said. "But we haven't seen anyone get into real serious trouble."