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Let the Games Begin

Olympics: With opening ceremonies tonight, there are plenty of sponsors and athletes, but no boycotts.

July 19, 1996|RANDY HARVEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — Five years 10 months ago, it seemed certain the dateline you have just read would say Athens. That unquestionably was the name International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch thought he would see when he opened the envelope containing the result of the vote to select the host city for the Centennial Games. Instead, he announced Atlanta.

"We decided the Centennial is for looking forward, not looking back," IOC Vice President Richard Pound of Canada said later of the decision for Atlanta over Athens, the site of the first Modern Games in 1896. "While we honor our traditions, we are about the future. That's why we chose the new world over the old."

So here we are, hours before tonight's opening ceremonies of the 1996 Summer Games at the Centennial Olympic Stadium. If this is the future, are we sure we want to go there?

Downtown Atlanta looks like midway at the state fair, with street vendors selling everything from alligator sausage to T-shirts with mammoth, nude breasts on the front. Most large corporations that paid $40 million each to become official sponsors have their own tents. "Welcome to BudWorld," a barker outside one shouts. Coca-Cola has its own block, with a 60-foot caldron shaped like one of its familiar bottles.

Traffic on Peachtree Street is backed up for miles. Tempers are flaring on jammed rapid transit trains, but the trains are so crowded that no one can throw a punch. Newspapers warn of pickpockets, despite the presence of a security force of 30,000 from federal, state, county, city and private agencies--the largest force ever for anything other than a war. The city warns of water shortages. The heat is rising.

On the other hand. . . .

If any place ever had a right to call itself a global village, it is Atlanta between tonight's opening ceremonies and the closing ceremonies Aug. 4. For the first time, there will be 100% attendance from the countries in the Olympic movement. The b-word--boycott--has hardly been spoken.

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, there are more countries (197) involved than ever before. There also will be more athletes (about 10,700, including a record 3,800 women) in more events (271) and more sports (26) than ever before. For those who think of the IOC as stuffy, two sports the members admitted are beach volleyball and mountain biking. Hey, Juan dude, party hardy!

Indeed, these Games have a chance to be the sports festival that Baron Pierre de Coubertin of France envisioned more than a century ago instead of the clash of ideologies that threatened to destroy them in the four decades after World War II.

That does not mean that the Americans, Russians and Germans are less interested in winning; it's just that the medals no longer will be used to keep score in the debate between communism and capitalism. (The Chinese might still want to engage in that game, but the state-of-the-art drug testing equipment is expected to keep them in line. The Cubans were sunk before they started by the defections of two boxers and a pitcher.)

Now, however, that the subject has been raised, who will win the most medals?

The United States, with a force of 890 athletes and a support staff of 188 coaches and officials, will be disappointed if it does not. The Unified Team won 112 medals, including 45 golds, four years ago in Barcelona to 108 and 37 for the runner-up United States. But the Unified Team is no more, having splintered into 15 teams representing the former Soviet republics, and the United States has the home court, field, track, lake and ocean (yachting is off the coast of Savannah) advantage.

Some U.S. athletes would be spectacular on any shore. Sprinter Michael Johnson could become the first man to win the 200 and 400 meters. Carl Lewis in the long jump could become the first man since discus thrower Al Oerter to win the same track and field event in four consecutive Olympics. With two gold medals, swimmer Janet Evans would tie Bonnie Blair as the most decorated female American. Heavyweight wrestler Bruce Baumgartner, who will carry the U.S. flag in the opening ceremonies, is going for his third gold medal. The U.S. women's softball team has a 110-1 record in international competition since 1986. The U.S. women's basketball team is 52-0 in exhibitions. Dream Team III could lose only to Dream Team I.

With a $415-million budget over the last four years, the U.S. Olympic Committee also is operating more efficiently than ever before. Even the men's field hockey team might win its first game ever. USOC officials translate it into 136 medals, 48 golds.

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