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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | MIKE DOWNEY

Games Aren't for Everyone . . . or Maybe They Are

July 14, 1996|MIKE DOWNEY

ATLANTA — The kindergarten students sat together, a little restless, a little irritable under the hot Georgia sun, waiting for their teacher to appear. When finally she did, the kids began calling her name in a sing-song voice--"MISS WALLER! MISS WALLLL-ER!"--until, in spite of all her vain attempts at total concentration, Tisha Waller could hear them over the crowd's noise and everything else.

"MISS WALLER! MISS WALLLL-ER!"

Squinting into the sunlight, trying to focus, also trying not to break out laughing at hearing her name chanted by a dozen giggling kids, Ms. Waller, the kindergarten teacher from Livsey Elementary School of DeKalb County, Ga., flexed her back leg, planted her front foot, rocked back and forth, then took off running.

With a few long strides, she reached a high-jump pit at the Centennial Olympic Stadium where the bar was set 6 feet 4 3/4 inches high, or about the same altitude as the scalp of Charles Barkley. Propelling herself like a jumper from a ledge into a fire department's net, Waller cleared the bar and landed softly on the inflatable cushion.

The kids went nuts.

Ms. Waller hopped off the cushion and waved to them, happily.

"MISS WALLER! MISS WALLER! MISS WALLER!" they chanted, faster now.

Their teacher had just made the U.S. Olympic team.

When a formation of athletes dressed in red, white and blue comes marching into this same stadium next Friday night for the opening ceremonies of the Centennial Olympic Games, with the whole world watching, the official emissaries of the United States will include such luminaries as Andre Agassi, Janet Evans, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Karch Kiraly, Carl Lewis, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O'Neal, Monica Seles, Sheryl Swoopes, Shannon Miller, Scottie Pippen and Pete Sampras, many of whom lead lifestyles of the rich and famous.

And, by their side, walks a kindergarten teacher.

You might spot Alexi Lalas' russet Buffalo Bill goatee, or Gail Devers' talonlike fingernails, or Holly McPeak's perfect tan, or David Robinson's long, lantern-jawed cranium, bobbing above the crowd. Familiar faces, familiar forms.

And, by their side, walk a 70-pound gymnast and a 370-pound weightlifter.

You might be able to pick out the rippling muscles of a Karl Malone, or the vaguely familiar faces of the pro tennis-playing Fernandez women, or the stovepipe neck and stiff-backed posture of Michael Johnson, possibly the world's fastest human, as they file into the arena. Somehow, these people aren't strangers to you. You have heard their names somewhere before.

And, by their side, walks a hungry young boxer who has never made a dollar, next to a 45-year-old horseback rider who comes from a world of red ribbons and bluegrass.

That's the beauty of the Olympics.

Mix and mingle. Mingle and mix.

Some of the stories that will surface from the Atlanta Olympics will involve individuals who are never far from life's spotlight. For Penny Hardaway, Reggie Miller, John Stockton, what happens between Friday and Aug. 4 will not bring public attention to them for the first time, or probably affect their careers.

For others, though, this is their moment, their once in a lifetime. Like the young archer who one day is shooting targets in his driveway, and the next day is on "The Tonight Show," demonstrating how to aim an arrow so it travels through a paper hoop, topples two champagne flutes and pops a balloon.

Fifteen minutes of fame.

Or maybe 17 days.

Back when he played in Barcelona, as part of the first pro basketball unit we ever deployed to represent our country, Michael Jordan might gladly have been just a typical Olympian, rather than an aloof celebrity who kept to himself in a luxury hotel, had he been able to move through the Olympic village for even five minutes without being swarmed by his own countrymen and teammates. Opponents took drubbings from the Dream Team, then asked the NBA players to pose for photographs.

By the Sydney Olympics of 2000, the final hitter for the United States could be catcher Mike Piazza, stepping up to the plate against Korea's right-handed ace, Chan Ho Park.

Mix and mingle. Mingle and mix.

These Olympics will be Tisha Waller's opus, a chance for a bunch of kindergarten kids to learn the falsity of "Those who can't do, teach."

The Olympics will be about Peter Leone, 35, a man from a famous show-jumping family, who endured such pain from a broken collarbone as to be almost unbearable, but nevertheless rode and jumped anyway to a final flawless round to make his first Olympic team.

And the Olympics will be about Jon Drummond, 27, of Los Angeles, who will run in the 100-meter dash. Son of a preacher man, Jon stood on a pedestal when he was 2 years old and touched members of the congregation as they passed by, some of them claiming the child had the power to heal.

Jon sings gospel music now, and says he will belt out the national anthem as loud as he knows how, should he find himself standing on another pedestal, having a medal placed around his neck. He is on the team. This is his dream.

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