The spirit of the Los Angeles Games was rekindled last week in Baton Rouge as the U.S. Olympic Committee's sixth National Sports Festival opened a 12-day stand. Not to mention the spirit of Sarajevo. Among the 3,800 participants were high jumpers and hockey players, gymnasts and figure skaters. Never mind that Louisiana lay under a scorching sun. Given the air of purposeful striving that suffused the festival, it was possible to imagine a Bad Bill Johnson winging downhill on snow that had been airlifted in for the occasion from, oh, Sun Valley.
Showcasing U.S. athletes in 34 sports—from archery to volleyball, baseball to yachting—the festival is the first big stepping-stone toward the 1988 Olympics in Calgary and Seoul. The event, which next year will be renamed the U.S. Olympic Festival, has already gained respect as a valuable precursor to the Olympics. Carl Lewis can testify to that. It was at the 1982 festival that the star of the '84 Games hung up a 28'9" long jump, then his personal best. In fact, of the 287 U.S. medalists at Los Angeles, 183 had competed in at least one festival.
True to its name, though, it is more a festive celebration of sport than a hard-edged competition. "This is a fun event," said diver Greg Louganis, who won two gold medals at L.A. and is one of the celebrity athletes competing at Baton Rouge. "This is a relatively relaxed competition."
"The main thing here is camaraderie," said Roger Bass, a figure skating coach. And so it seemed as youthful competitors made new acquaintances—and became acquainted with the spicy cuisine of the bayous. A friendship begun over jambalaya might develop into the full-fledged comradeship of a fire extinguisher fight, as was the case in one of the LSU dorms.
But it wasn't all fun and games. Adolescent skaters coming off the ice after cutting fancy figures looked just as tautly expectant as their Olympic counterparts as they awaited the judges' verdict, and divers plunging off the platform were as closely scrutinized for the most minuscule flaws. Scouts from professional baseball and ice hockey were reminders that high achievement could bring future monetary reward. (One afternoon two earnest-looking major league scouts sat behind a backstop clocking pitched balls.)
Dreamers abounded. Cliff Golumb, 28, of Austin, Texas, wants to be "the best diver I can be." Best in the world? "Of course." Fact is, he never will be. At dinner one night a waiter said to him, "I hope you do well." Said Golumb, "Thank you very much. Today I finished last."
Still, he goes on, modeling for art classes at the University of Texas at $5.70 an hour to make ends meet and continue his quest for the perfect dive. "If you give up your dreams," he says, "you die."
If most of the athletes at Baton Rouge aspired to have their day in the Olympic sun, others came solely for the competition at hand. Take Wilburn Wooten, 55, an archer from Winston-Salem, N.C. He conceded that the Olympics were too big a dream for him to realize. But no matter.
"In order to make it to the top, they've got to get by me first," Wooten said.
That's the spirit.