A transportation nightmare left more than a thousand Special Olympic athletes and coaches stranded and sleeping on a basketball court at a college campus Tuesday night, a disappointing welcome to the U.S. for people who had traveled thousands of miles to compete in the games.
Athletes from 165 countries started arriving at LAX Tuesday, expecting to be transported to Loyola Marymount University to check in for the games. After checking in, they were slated to board buses from LMU to various Southern California cities to be welcomed and celebrated before the games kick off this weekend, as part of the Host Town program.
Yet when some flights arrived early and others were delayed, the contracted bus companies didn't pick them up from LAX as planned, leaving some athletes waiting for transportation from the airport for hours.
To make matters worse, bus drivers then had to stop working at midnight to comply with their overtime restrictions, according to Richard Perelman, a spokesman for the 2015 Special Olympics World Games.
As a result, more than 1,500 delegates were forced to sleep on the floor of Gersten Pavilion at Loyola Marymount University.
"America is supposed to be like a promised land or something," said Victoria Pecnikar a coach from Slovenia. "We were waiting for something more."
Some 9,000 delegates were being processed and transported overall, with 7,200 of them stopping through LMU, according to Perelman.
"There were too many people to move at a given time," Perelman said.
The athletes' luggage was dropped off in a parking lot across campus, leaving some athletes without their baggage, medicine, or food.
Perelman said breakfast got to the stranded delegates at 6 a.m. Wednesday.
It was a disastrous and disappointing start, said Regina Costa a coach from Portugal. Some of her athletes didn't have their medication Tuesday night because their luggage was unloaded at another part of the campus.
She, along with other coaches and team doctors, were concerned because some of their athletes have behavioral issues and epilepsy.
Costa said one of her athletes was "completely panicked" and told her, "I cannot sleep on the floor, at my home I have a bed."
The Red Cross was brought in Tuesday night in an attempt to make sleeping on the facility's basketball court more comfortable.
Athletes and coaches sat on the ground outside of the pavilion Wednesday morning, waiting for buses to arrive.
When yellow school buses and vans made their way into the parking lot, "many delegates cheered and started to sing songs in their native languages," Perleman said.
Shortly after noon Wednesday, all of the stranded athletes had departed LMU headed for hotels in various host cities as far north as San Luis Obispo, and as far east as Palm Springs.
They will be brought back to before the Opening Ceremonies this Saturday.