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It's not your typical Olympic Village, that's for sure. To get
to the home of the eight Olympic softball teams, which will play
their games at Golden Park in Columbus, Ga., drive 104 miles
southwest of Atlanta to the U.S. Army base at Fort Benning.
Proceed through one checkpoint, then take the winding road to
another checkpoint 100 yards from the bachelor officers'
quarters, where two military police officers with M-16s inspect
your credentials and order you to zigzag around six
antiterrorist concrete barricades and into a parking lot. At the
officers' quarters, your belongings are inspected by more
military police and your official credentials are issued. Then
you walk through a metal detector and are escorted to the
designated area for meeting athletes, otherwise known as the
officers' mess hall. Along the way, you can't help but notice a
couple of the 16 sharpshooters who are perched on parapets atop
the buildings, keeping a vigil over a compound that is
surrounded by barbed-wire fence.

Softball, anyone?

"At first," Australian pitcher Carolyn Crudgington says, "you're
kind of nervous looking at all the security. But then you think,
How could we feel any more safe? Really, we're happy to be in
Columbus. It doesn't take away from our Olympic experience, even
though we're not in Atlanta."

"Ssshhhh!" teammate Jenny Holliday says with a laugh. "Don't
tell them how good we have it here. They'll all want to come
down from Atlanta!"

What the athletes have in Columbus--and in most of the eight
other venues outside of the Atlanta area--is a good deal more
peace and quiet than the competitors have in the Olympic Village
at Georgia Tech. The U.S. men's soccer team resides in a quiet
dormitory in the athletes' village at Birmingham Southern
College. Even that wasn't good enough for the Argentines, who
will play the Americans tomorrow night. They are holed up in a
monastery 55 miles north of Birmingham, in Cullman, Ala.

But while the accommodations at the Olympic Village in Atlanta
are pretty standard college-dorm fare, athletes at the other
venues have lodgings ranging from campy to suitelike. At the
Ocoee Whitewater Center in the Cherokee National Forest in
southern Tennessee, kayakers live in rustic dorms, two to a room
in bunk beds. "The rooms are like any other rooms with bunk
beds," says Michael Reys of Holland. "We're better off here than
Atlanta because it's cooler and better for competing." In Miami,
soccer gold medal favorite Brazil opted for the swanky Biltmore
Hotel over the dorm rooms at Nova University being occupied by
the seven other teams at that venue. In Savannah, 252 miles
southeast of Atlanta, the waterfront Marriott Hotel serves as
the home base for yachting contestants. The bad news: Athletes
don't get Marriott points. The good news: Yachters will walk
down cobblestoned River Road at 8 p.m. tomorrow for their own
opening ceremonies.

Athletes who are disappointed about missing out on the Atlanta
experience are reminded by their coaches and Olympic veterans
that they don't want to blow everything they've worked for to be
a medal winner in the Social Olympics. Because it has a game
tomorrow night, the American soccer team will skip tonight's
opening ceremonies. "Hey, it stinks," says U.S. defender Alexi
Lalas. "On the one hand, we'd love to be in Atlanta. I was in
Barcelona, and being an athlete in the Olympic Village is like
living in New York City and going out on the town and getting
everything free. But on the other hand, you have to remember why
you're here--to play at your absolute best--and you don't want
to throw that away because you've been out too late at night. We
like it here, especially the support."

A sellout crowd of 81,085 will watch the U.S.-Argentina game at
Legion Field--an amazing thing, considering the level of college
football fervor in town. (On Wednesday a sports-talk station
droned on about Auburn's football recruiting season.)

Canadian softball players voted on Wednesday to attend the
opening ceremonies at Olympic Stadium, as will most of the seven
other softball teams. "You lose some of the Olympic experience
not being in Atlanta, no question," says Brenda Staniforth, a
Canadian assistant coach. "That's one of the reasons we decided
to go."

Despite the tight security at Fort Benning, athletes like the
venue because of its quaintness. On Wednesday night the Aussies
raised their national flag on the officers' club grounds, then
attended an ice-cream social there. Crudgington was so proud of
her room that she wanted to show it off. It's a third-floor
single with all the amenities of a luxury one-bedroom flat:
bathroom with shower, large closet, air-conditioning,
minirefrigerator, microwave, 19-inch color TV with remote
control, queen-sized bed, artwork and cookies. The artwork, a
kangaroo drawn in crayon, is courtesy of a Columbus schoolgirl.
The oatmeal cookies were baked by volunteers who also delivered
them to the 160 players and staffers there. "Our friends in
Atlanta will be jealous when we tell them," Crudgington says.

Atlanta? How about Birmingham? "They have what?" Lalas said
yesterday. "Well, we're pretty low-maintenance guys. We're two
to a room. My feet hang off the end of the bed, just like in
college. Is it The Four Seasons? Nope. Doesn't matter. The
food's great, and people are treating us great."

The Americans bused the 2 1/2 hours from Atlanta to Birmingham
on Tuesday, escorted by a SWAT team traveling in an unmarked
car. In Birmingham the Americans' first stop was the Alabama
Power Building. They were greeted by a band, cheerleaders and
4,000 fans who ringed the six-story atrium and showered the
players with confetti. Veterans of the team say it was the
warmest reception they have ever received. "Atlanta may have a
better arcade," U.S. forward A.J. Wood says, "but we've got our
fans here."

Fans and security. Always security.

COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND Aussie softball players have plenty of reasons to feel secure at Fort Benning. [Three women athletes talking to two male U.S. soldiers]

COLOR PHOTO: THEA DREW/BIRMINGHAM POST-HERALD In Birmingham the U.S. men's soccer team was showered with support by a crowd that numbered 4,000. [Aerial view of town reception for soccer team]