If you can overlook the bumper stickers that read DON'T BLAME
ME, I VOTED FOR ATHENS; if you can regard these Olympics as
something more than a stage set for a Jeff Foxworthy monologue;
if you can (literally) get past the kitschorama vendors and
slow-roasted flesh that are clogging downtown Atlanta, you may
be able to feel the uplifting updraft that buffets every Olympic
city for its fortnight as the world's stage. It is the zephyr
that bears a Bob Beamon to a theretofore unimagined distance. It
is the fresh air that fills the prepubescent lungs of a Nadia
Comaneci as she puffs out her chest upon dismount after a
perfect 10. It is the oxygen that feeds the flame.
As torchlight opened these Centennial Games last night under a
sky cooled mercifully by nightfall, a phrase from the South's
own William Faulkner seemed to bid the participants to "create
out of the material of the human spirit something which did not
exist before." Olympians can do this--can reconcile the physical
with the spiritual and conflate the two into feats never
accomplished before. World Cup finals are decided on penalty
kicks; Super Bowls are decided in the first quarter. But the
achievements of the next 16 days will be so vast in their
variety--and enough will be sufficiently surprising in their
provenance--that these Games will defy disappointment. The
Olympics never disappoint.
Certainly the opening ceremonies, a Cecil B. de
Fifteen-Million-Dollar homage to the modern Olympics' classical
roots and multicultural present, spared nothing. They featured
chrome pickup trucks and Greek priestesses, a Presidential
near-stumble as Bill Clinton made his way to the infield and the
words of bards from the Greek poet Pindar to those consorts of
the artist formerly known as Prince, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.
And while there is no escaping the vulgarity of an Olympics in
Atlanta when one sets it alongside the last two oh-so-tasteful
Western European editions--say, while we're at it, why don't we
run the Kentucky Derby at Aqueduct?--the keynote struck last
night sounded just right. Spectators were boisterous enough that
they could have been Between the Hedges on a Saturday afternoon,
yet each had been handed a sunflower upon filing in. To that old
theatrical rule--never work with children or animals--might be
added a corollary: Never work with crowds of more than 80,000.
People ignored the audience-participation guides left at each
seat. But even though the ceremonies were delayed by 20 minutes
because of the glacially slow Parade of Nations, they were rapt
when Muhammad Ali stepped up to ignite the Olympic cauldron.
Withal, last night established that there is both an Athens that
was the birthplace of the modern Games and one that's just down
the road a piece, and the two can coexist.
As the competition begins today with medals at stake in 10
events, no group of Olympians figures to derive more lift from
the location of these Games than members of the final delegation
to file into Olympic Stadium last night, the 800 or so athletes
of the U.S. team. Just as Spaniards overachieved in Barcelona in
1992 and Norwegians vastly exceeded expectations two years ago
at the Winter Games in Lillehammer, Americans are expected to
lead the medal standings with their most dominating showing
since they put the boot to all manner of international booty at
the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics (although that was in
invasion-of-Grenada fashion, against a field thinned by the
July 19, 1996
Whether the Americans will be as dominant as they say they'll be
is another matter. A lot of sweet-sounding verbiage accompanied
last night's festivities, from those words of Faulkner to the
impassioned benedictions of Martin Luther King Jr. But those
gentlemen could walk it as well as talk it. Can greenhorn pole
vaulter Lawrence Johnson, a brash college student at Tennessee,
really do what he says he aims to do--outsoar his sport's
godfather, world-record holder Sergei Bubka of Ukraine, whose
personal best is a half-foot higher than Johnson's? Does U.S.
men's gymnastics coach Peter Kormann have any business invoking
the 1980 U.S. hockey team only a few weeks after his athletes
fell 15 times on one day in a single meet? What could
37-year-old Mary Slaney have been thinking when, after
qualifying in the 5,000 meters with a time that was 50 seconds
off this year's world best, she announced, "I'm going for a
Some members of the home team don't sound like rude hosts so
much as oblivious, clueless ones. "Whatever team steps on the
floor with us is going to get a butt-kicking no matter what
uniform they're wearing," says Tara Cross-Battle, captain of the
U.S. women's volleyball team, perhaps forgetting for a moment
that she and her teammates have lost their last four matches to
China, which isn't even expected to earn a medal in Atlanta.
Russia's Alexander Karelin is an eight-time world champion
Greco-Roman wrestler who has never lost an international match,
and Matt Ghaffari of the U.S. has lost to Karelin 12 straight
times. Ghaffari nonetheless says, "My job is to see that he has
one loss before he retires." Matt may wrestle in Greco-Roman,
but he speaks in tongues.
Starting today, with finals in fencing, judo, shooting, swimming
and weightlifting, actual results will begin to call to account
all those brash predictions of citi-U.S., alti-U.S., forti-U.S.
Hometown fans will most definitely be urging their local heroes
on, but they'll expect to see medal-winning performances--mostly
gold ones--in return. Could there be any other drawback to being
on terra cognita and chowing down on home cookin'? "One word,"
says Katrina McClain, a star forward on the U.S. women's
basketball team who played collegiately at Georgia. "Tickets."
Tell it to McClain's teammate Ruthie Bolton, a Mississippian
with 19 siblings, who believes she has the answer to her ducat
dilemma: a raffle. And for the longest time, Atlanta's Gwen
Torrence--another Southern native, with a chance to earn a medal
in the 100 meters--looked the other way when she passed Olympic
Stadium as it was being built, considering the place emblematic
of the pressure she would feel on that day she finally settled
into the blocks.
But most of the U.S. team is only too happy to be at home.
Tonight at Birmingham's Legion Field, where a football crowd is
traditionally cleaved equally between Alabama and Auburn,
virtually all 81,085 voices will gang up on the A-team of
Argentina. "From the moment we got to Birmingham, we've felt the
spirit of these people," says defender Alexi Lalas, who also
played on the '92 U.S. Olympic soccer team. "Imagine being used
to being ignored, relatively speaking, and busing into a town
where 4,000 people greet you and chant, 'U.S.A.! U.S.A.!'"
Floyd Mayweather Jr., a 19-year-old U.S. boxer, points out how a
friendly crowd can ruffle a judge's judgment. "Overseas the
crowd will howl when the other guy just touches me on the arm,"
he says. "Here the American crowd will be chanting for me when I
do that. It's going to keep me hyped, keep me ready."
U.S. flagbearer Bruce Baumgartner, a four-time Olympian who
wrestled at the L.A. Games, can still recall the perfect 10 that
gymnast Mary Lou Retton nailed a dozen years ago. "Would that
have happened in Korea or Moscow?" he says. "Who knows? But it
did happen in the United States."
In the U.S., race walker Curt Clausen can convey by bus 45
members of his family from North Carolina, to watch him
negotiate 20 kilometers. In the U.S., Asian-American gymnast Amy
Chow can play to the crowd--and give political correctness a
good pommeling, as it were--by performing her floor-exercise
routine to Dixie. In the U.S., cyclist Jeanne Golay can invite
63 of her closest friends to a pre-Games banquet.
And in the U.S. even Torrence can find something hospitable
about that Olympic Stadium she once regarded as a mausoleum of
expectation. After winning the 100 at the trials there eight
weeks ago, Torrence took a languid victory lap, pausing and
posing for photos with fans in the stands, waving like a beauty
queen borne on a float gliding down Main Street. "As I went
around the track I kept seeing people I went to high school
with, that I went to elementary school with," she says. "I had
to stop and say hello and let them take my picture."
It was, she says, like leafing through old yearbooks and family
albums; in one circumnavigation of that 400-meter track she saw
all the stages of her life. And for us, Torrence's tale is a
reminder that, for American athletes, there will be many more
human spirits--kin, friends and fans alike--from which to create
their bronze and silver and gold.