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Olympic Festival Athletes Get Marching Orders

July 22, 1989|JULIE CART | Times Staff Writer

NORMAN, Okla. — Imagine the problem facing the U.S. Olympic Committee and organizers of the U.S. Olympic Festival who were planning Friday night's opening ceremonies held at the University of Oklahoma: How to cajole more than 3,500 athletes into behaving themselves in front of a national television audience--and former President Ronald Reagan.

Of the eight previous multi-sport Olympic Festivals, this one in Oklahoma is the first to have such a concern. Because of criticism regarding the manner in which the American team marched into Seoul Stadium during the opening ceremonies of the 1988 Olympic Games, USOC officials have been attempting to indoctrinate a new generation of athletes in proper marching technique. Starting here Friday night.

The Seoul gaffe, captured in detail by television and beamed around the world, still embarrasses some U.S. officials. What the world saw was American athletes wearing Mickey Mouse caps, carrying "Hi, Mom" signs, breaking rank and running off the track and even going into the stands. Worse, as the delegation grew ever more ragged, it caused a traffic jam among other nations marching in.

However, it was not unlike American entrances at other Olympics. What many in the U.S. delegation regarded as exuberant, youthful behavior was seen by many in the Olympic family as a display of boorish manners.

"We simply had no idea," said one USOC official here of the world reaction to the Seoul spectacle.

They found out soon enough, though. An official in the International Olympic Committee wrote an angry letter to the USOC delegation. The letter suggested that the Americans' rowdy display had offended their Korean hosts.

The USOC got the message. Starting here, American athletes are being taught to behave themselves while marching.

Before Friday night's ceremonies these young athletes, most of whom have not competed internationally, were given a warning regarding what one official called "horsing around."

The suspense was over early. The East team emerged from the northwest tunnel and strolled around the perimeter of the field in a peppy but orderly fashion. In fact, the East team's officials were in more ragged formation than the athletes, a scene that held true as all four regions marched in to a medley of tunes by John Phillip Sousa.

While the official admonitions appeared to have reined in the athletes during the march into the stadium, little could be done to mollify bored athletes as they stood around the infield during the early portion of the evening's show. No lecture could have prevented the impromptu line dancing, handsprings and mugging for cameras.

No one seemed to mind. After all, some allowances must be made for human nature. And youth.

By festival standards, Friday night's show was the most glitzy and, quite probably, the most expensive. The crowd was the festival's largest ever for opening ceremonies, 76,014. Comedian Bob Hope was merely a warm-up for the main act, Reagan, who saluted the athletes and asked them to "Win one for the Gipper."

Triple Olympic gold medalist Florence Griffith Joyner carried the festival flame into Memorial Stadium, clad in her signature one-legged tights.

As far as these football-field-as-stage extravaganzas go, this one lacked none of the standard gimmicks.

--Air Force jets buzzed the stadium. Skydivers carrying smoke devices landed on the 20-yard line. Hot air ballons. Fireworks. Laser light shows.

--The Oklahoma High School All-Star Band blared out songs that sought to "Salute Oklahoma's role in America's westward expansion." Which meant they played songs like the themes to TV's "Rawhide" and "Wild, Wild West".

Whatever the act or whoever the star, the message never drifted far from evening's central theme--Oklahoma. And those who have lived in it and still do and why. Famous Oklahomans such as James Garner, Patti Page, Mickey Mantle and Curt Gowdy were brought out to tremendous applause. Singers Roger Miller, Reba McEntire and the Oak Ridge Boys performed to tremendous applause.

In fact, everything on the program was met with tremendous applause.

The loudest applause was saved for the entrance of the South team, favorite sons here. In a remarkable development, the state's most favorite son was among those who escorted the South team. Former Oklahoma football coach Barry Switzer was introduced, and the crowd went wild. That was fanned when another celebrity escort, former Sooner running back Billy Sims, spontaneously grabbed Switzer in a bear hug.

Switzer, who recently resigned while his football program continued to wilt under intense scrutiny from the National Collegiate Athletic Assn., walked quietly amid the tumult.

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