Originally created 11/04/99

Savannah to close Olympic training site



SAVANNAH -- After 2 1/2 years, the Savannah International Training Center is closing its doors because of financial difficulties.

SITC Executive Director Paul Scott said the facility, faced with bills in excess of $100,000, will cease operations Nov. 30.

Mr. Scott said the deficit was the result of a disagreement with the International Olympic Committee about the funding of the SITC, which houses world-class athletes from developing nations.

The IOC, according to Mr. Scott, failed to meet its obligations to provide enough athletes to keep the training center open.

"It's like a private school," Mr. Scott said. "If you don't have enough students, you shut the doors.

"It's a pretty clean-cut situation. There's really no other way to look at it. We've tried everything in our power to make it work. But it just comes down to economics sometimes."

Mr. Scott said the problem first came to his attention shortly after the training center moved from LaGrange to Savannah in May of 1997 as part of the Olympic Solidarity program.

Mr. Scott says that Pere Miro, director of Olympic Solidarity, promised the IOC would supply the center with 25 athletes through August of 2000. The number of athletes is important because it determines the amount of revenue that is awarded.

But eight months into the program, Mr. Scott said he noticed that the IOC was starting to cut back on the number of athletes.

"We approached them and said, `Why are you cutting back on the number of athletes?' That greatly affects our revenue," Mr. Scott said. "They said, `We never said we'd maintain those numbers.' We said, `You didn't say that you wouldn't, either."'

Since then, Mr. Scott said he has traveled the world to meet with IOC officials to try to come up with a solution to the problem.

The situation came to a head Friday when Mr. Miro sent Mr. Scott a letter stating that "we regretfully acknowledge that the Savannah International Training Center will close in November. We are sorry that no positive solution could be found to resolve this situation ... ."

Now, Mr. Scott said Mr. Miro is claiming the IOC never made a commitment to the SITC and the U.S. Olympic Committee, which has been involved in the negotiations.

Mr. Miro could not be reached for comment.

Mr. Scott said the decision to shut down the program was made Monday at a board meeting of the Chatham County Recreation Authority, which is in charge of running the facility.

"When someone sends you a letter saying no positive solution can be found, you sort of have to make a decision what to do financially," Mr. Scott said. "We had no other choice.

"It's frustrating because we've nurtured this thing along from nothing and made it into something. It's a sad situation."

One remaining issue facing the center now is what to do about the outstanding bills. Mr. Scott said he has sent a bill to the IOC for the balance.

"We're hoping they're going to pay it, we think they're going to pay it," he said. "If they don't, we're going to be forced into some kind of action.

"But I'm optimistic that they will. They've owed us money in the past and they've always paid it, so we're hoping that will be the case."

The other issue is what's going to happen to the athletes after Nov. 30. The options are either for the athletes to transfer to another training center or to return home to their native countries.

If they choose to transfer, Mr. Scott said they would have to leave the country because there isn't another training center in the United States.

Mark Anthony Awere, a long jumper from Ghana, said he was "very disappointed" that the center was closing.

"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't," he said.

Kaltouma Nadjina, a sprinter from Central Africa, said the hardest part was the timing.

"It's not good for us because we have just six-seven months before the Olympics," she said. "We don't have much time. We have to move from here and go look for another coach and a place to live. It's going to be very hard."

Pamodou Gai, a long jumper and sprinter from West Africa, is in better shape than most of his fellow athletes, though.

"I can still go to school," the Savannah State sophomore said. "I've got scholarship offers from Kentucky State and South Carolina State. Savannah State has also offered me a scholarship."

For now, though, Mr. Gai said he doesn't know what he's going to do.

"I'm going to finish the semester and then I'll decide what's best for me," he said.