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Now a good word for the pickpockets, muggers and thieves who
have descended upon Atlanta for the Olympics: At least they work
fast. They stick a knife in your ribs, remove your wallet and
they're gone. As far as I can tell, the inhabitants of this town
have a different game plan for the duration of the Games. They
are determined to strip their visitors of everything but gold
fillings, and they are in no hurry to do so.

If you thought your greatest achievement was scoring a ticket to
the gold medal basketball game, you were wrong. The real
challenge is still ahead: Will you be able to slog through the
slippery pin-swappers, the ubiquitous newspaper hawkers, the
glassy-eyed street-corner preachers and the rest of the
carnivorous sidewalk pests to make it to the Georgia Dome by
tip-off? We can only hope the Greco-Roman wrestlers go to the
body as aggressively as the army of entrepreneurs.

A good deal has been written about the high temperatures that
suffocate this city, but the fact is, there are more-annoying
obstacles. In Atlanta these days, it is not so much the heat as
the humanity. A local Olympic official admitted that the
downtown area has become a bit "cluttered," which is a nice way
of saying if one person comes down with chicken pox, we're all
in trouble. It's one thing to sweat through your shirt, but it's
quite another to learn that the perspiration actually belongs to
the guy behind you in the line for the rest room.

Tomorrow is expected to be another busy day at Hartsfield
Atlanta International Airport, which is bracing for an
additional 200,000 visitors. Unless the newcomers plan to grease
themselves, it's hard to imagine how they will be able to
squeeze into the downtown area. Already this place makes Bangkok
look like Nome, and each square inch that has not been claimed
by a human being has been covered by a corporate billboard,
banner or tent.

On a positive note, there seems to be plenty of drinking water
at hand, as long as you're carrying enough cash. Indeed, it's
virtually impossible to take two steps in any direction without
running into a young hustler with a Styrofoam cooler full of
bottled water and a wad of small bills. These hustlers seem to
be outnumbered only by the paper pushers. The Atlanta
Journal-Constitution reportedly has 320 journalists working on
its bountiful Olympic coverage, and it appears that at least 310
are hawking extra editions on the sidewalk. It is hard to
believe that a respected publication would use the Olympics as
an opportunity to sell special editions to the souvenir-hungry
public. How tacky. And there are so many better ways to spend
your tourist dollars, such as paying to get into a shopping mall.

At first, the popular mall at Underground Atlanta looks like
most other local tourist stops. There are security personnel
standing guard at each entrance. The only difference at the
Underground is that these sentries have the added duty of
charging people $3 just to walk through the mall after 6 p.m.
"But you only have to pay once," one guard said, and you can
come and go until midnight. Now, there at last is a bargain: a
night at the mall for one low price. Dear Mom and Dad: Couldn't
afford gymnastics tickets, but I got into the Gap the other day.
Saw all the new fall fashions. Wish you were here.

Of course, of all the advantages that Athens, Greece, had over
Atlanta in the bidding for these Games, this was probably the
most underrated: It isn't a Greyhound bus ticket away for every
freelance evangelist. There are a few sidewalk stands that offer
free water, free lemonade and even free Olympic pins. All you
have to do is convert to the religion of the person behind the
counter, and a pin is yours. I knew the souvenirs would be
expensive, but I didn't think they were going to cost me my
soul. My favorite quote of the week comes from the
pamphlet-pushing woman who cornered a confused young girl along
North Avenue, near Georgia Tech University. Said the woman, "But
even Muslims can turn themselves over to Jesus."

There were reports that ACOG officials were rousting the
homeless out of the most visible areas before the Games, so I
was suspicious when I saw a man with an official ACOG credential
bending over to talk to Tim, a grubby young man who was sitting
on his bedroll at the corner of Luckie and Peachtree streets.
When the official left, I asked Tim if the ACOG guy was trying
to boot him off his corner.

"Nah," said Tim."He just wanted to talk about God. He thinks the
Lord could really help me."

Sixteen more days. Lord help us all.

COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES Water may cost an arm and a leg, but it's nice to know you can get your soul cleansed for free. [Man wearing sign reading "Repent Repent Jesus Christ Is Coming Soon This Is A Warning Repent Or Perish"]