Special Olympics competitors arriving in Southern California were greeted by a logistics mess that forced many to sleep on a gymnasium floor before they were finally shuttled to their host cities on Wednesday.
At least 1,500 athletes and coaches spent the night at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles after flights and buses arrived late on Tuesday, Special Olympics spokesman Rich Perelman said.
By midday Wednesday, the athletes from Norway, Mexico, Venezuela, Kenya, the Cayman Islands and other countries were on their way to their host cities. That was just in time to clear the campus for the arrival of thousands more scheduled to show up Wednesday afternoon.
"It really wasn't bad," Collins Marigiri, the Kenyan team's swim coach, said as he and his athletes boarded a bus for their host city of Bakersfield. He added with a smile that it was his and his team's first trip to the United States, so even getting stuck overnight in a college gymnasium was a new and interesting experience for them.
"The athletes didn't have any problems," Marigiri said. "They had food. They had water. They had a place to sleep. There were no medical issues."
The Red Cross provided blankets and water.
Phyllis Cohn left Loyola Marymount University at 8 a.m. Wednesday morning after seven hours of passing out water, blankets and snacks to the athletes, she tells KPCC.
“We handed out 1,200 blankets, 3,000 bottles of water, and countless snacks,” said Cohn, who is director of communications for the Los Angeles region of the American Red Cross. “I met athletes from Kenya and Bosnia. One from the Bosnia team thanked us for being there and helping his people.”
Cohn said the L.A. Emergency Management Department called on the Red Cross around 1 a.m. Wednesday morning after logistical issues with host families.
“But when I left, buses were coming in to move the athletes to different locations,” she said.
The Special Olympics has not requested the American Red Cross’ services at any other location, but she maintains that the organization is always on standby, Cohn said.
The university near Los Angeles International Airport is serving as a staging area from which approximately 6,500 athletes and thousands more coaches and delegates are being routed to host cities, from San Diego to San Luis Obispo. They will be housed there until the games' opening ceremonies on Saturday.
Problems began when some international flights were delayed and buses assigned to meet them began stacking up. Some minor construction near the airport that caused traffic delays didn't help.
"Flights arrived late and buses got backed up. The process just got so elongated that the decision was made to keep them here until morning," Perelman said.
Some athletes had to spend a few hours at the airport waiting for their connection to the welcome center. But overall, the arrival process was orderly and uneventful, said airport police Officer Rob Pedregon.
While some of those stranded were tired after their long trips, the majority made the most of the circumstances, Perelman said, playing board games and making friends with fellow athletes from other countries. Some took part in sing-alongs and at one point formed a conga line.
"Everyone was very happy when breakfast arrived at 6:30 a.m.," Perelman said. "That was the highlight."
Competitors from more than 160 countries are coming to Los Angeles this week to take part in 25 sports at venues across the city.
Athletes ages 8 to 71 will compete in soccer, basketball, volleyball, tennis, track, roller skating and other sports over nine days.
First lady Michelle Obama will open the event Saturday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, site of the 1932 and 1984 Summer Olympics.
ESPN is broadcasting the opening ceremony live.
This story has been updated.