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U.S. OLYMPIC FESTIVAL : LOS ANGELES--1991 : Will It Play in L.A.? : The Olympic Festival Has Appeared on Stages From Oklahoma City to Syracuse. Now, at 13, It Is Set to Take On Its Most Challenging Audience.


Born in the summer of 1978, the U.S. Olympic Festival, at 13, is full of vim, vigor and good intentions, but, like a teen-ager who has sprouted fast, it is somewhat awkward--still growing into its body and trying to find its place in the world.

Now, beginning Friday night with the opening ceremony at Dodger Stadium, the Festival, which is sponsored by the U.S. Olympic Committee, is coming to the big, big city for the first time. Between July 12-21, 36 Olympic and Pan American Games sports will be contested in Los Angeles and environs.

The Festival has been around. Held 10 times in non-Olympic years, it has been to Colorado Springs, Syracuse, Indianapolis, Baton Rouge, Houston, Raleigh-Durham, Oklahoma City and Minneapolis-St. Paul. Most have been enthusiastic enough to embrace the Festival like an aunt does her favorite niece or nephew.

But this is a different kind of town, one that doesn't get too excited about anything below 6.0 on the Richter Scale. The Festival shouldn't expect to be greeted at the bus station.

Already, there is a sense from the advance party that the Festival is overwhelmed.

Is this normal traffic, or did I make a wrong turn into a parking lot?

I could have hired a chauffeured limo for what it costs to park.

The bill for breakfast at the hotel would have paid for the down payment on a condo in St. Paul.

As Elizabeth Primrose-Smith, executive director of the local organizing committee, discovered, nothing is cheap in Los Angeles. With no public funds available, in the tradition of the 1984 Summer Olympics, she has lured a record number of corporate sponsors. But the $15-million budget also is a Festival record, and she is counting on 500,000 spectators to buy $3.4 million in tickets simply for the organizing committee to break even.

It would have had little chance of achieving even that modest goal if a 37th sport usually found at the Festival, ice hockey, had not agreed to move to St. Cloud, Minn., because 10 days of ice time at the only acceptable Los Angeles venues--the Forum and Sports Arena--were too expensive for the organizing committee.

But enough about money. This is a festival of sports.

Indeed, it was known as the National Sports Festival until 1986, when the USOC decided it needed a catchier name. The idea for the event--Olympics Lite, it has been called--originated with former USOC president Robert Kane in 1963, but it wasn't until 15 years later that it became a reality.

The first one in Colorado Springs attracted 1,900 athletes, who competed over four days in 25 sports. About 3,000 non-paying spectators spread blankets on a park hillside to watch the opening ceremony. More than 3,000 athletes have entered this year's Festival. As of last week, almost 30,000 tickets ranging in price from $25 to $35 had been sold for the Dodger Stadium opening ceremony, which has been choreographed by Radio City Music Hall. Kane must have to resist the temptation to pinch his inspiration on the cheek and exclaim, "My, how you've grown."

He said that his primary motivation in establishing the Festival was to showcase gifted young athletes in non-Olympic years, while giving them an opportunity to experience the taste of a multiday, multisport competition before graduating to the Olympics and Pan American Games.

Recent advertisements trumpeting the Festival as the first hurdle for Edwin Moses and the springboard for Greg Louganis are somewhat misleading. Two years before the first Festival, both won medals in the 1976 Summer Olympics at Montreal. But athletes who have emerged onto the national scene at the Festival include Michael Jordan, Evander Holyfield, Mary Lou Retton, Florence Griffith Joyner, Brian Boitano and Bonnie Blair. The 1980 "Miracle on Ice" hockey team was selected at the 1979 Festival in Colorado Springs.

Sometimes, athletes and their potential have met head-on at the Festival. On the same afternoon in 1983 at Colorado Springs, Evelyn Ashford and Calvin Smith set world records in the 100 meters. In 1986 at Houston, Jackie Joyner-Kersee broke her own world record in the heptathlon. In 1982 at Indianapolis, Carl Lewis, according to observers, soared more than 30 feet in the long jump only to have his mark raked away before it could be measured because of a controversial foul call.

No doubt there will be outstanding performances this year by athletes who will compete next year in the Winter Games at Albertville, France, or the Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. Among the 1992 medal contenders who are entered here include Todd Eldredge and the pairs team of Natasha Kuchiki and Todd Sand in figure skating; hurdlers Greg Foster and Kevin Young, long jumper Mike Powell and decathlete Dave Johnson in track and field; Eric Griffin and Oscar de la Hoya in boxing; Renee Duprel and Ken Carpenter in cycling; Kent Ferguson in diving and the Josepheson twins--Karen and Sarah--in synchronized swimming.

But in most sports, USOC officials acknowledge, athletes at this year's Festival are more likely to emerge as Olympians in 1994 at the Winter Games of Lillehammer, Norway, or in 1996 at the Summer Games of Atlanta.

Will Los Angeles, the city of Gretzky and Magic and Strawberry and two Olympics, turn out for the new kids on the block?

That remains to be seen, but one encouraging sign for the Festival is that phones in the organizing committee offices have been busy a lot.

You know teen-agers.

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