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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | MIKE DOWNEY

Stirring Start Puts New Georgia on Their Minds

July 20, 1996|MIKE DOWNEY

ATLANTA — In the land of the free and the home of the Braves, 197 nations united Friday night for the first Summer Olympics held in any American city other than Los Angeles in 92 years.

Atlanta did a curtsy and then introduced itself to the world with a Southern accent, whether it be quoting William Faulkner on the jumbo electronic scoreboard or motoring into Centennial Olympic Stadium in a convoy of pickup trucks. This was the Georgia capital's debutante ball, involving 5,500 performers and more than 10,000 athletes in an international coming-out party.

And who better than their old Kentucky neighbor Muhammad Ali to usher in the new South in this, our republic's bid for a brighter tomorrow? America is a far different place from the one he represented 36 years ago as Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., still imperfect, still impoverished, yet dedicated to be a better land than the one that once so discouraged a young prizefighter from Louisville that he hurled his gold medal into a nearby river.

An inspired idea, Atlanta. You might not be Athens, Greece, but you chose wisely and beyond your years.

From the moment Gladys Knight arose through a trapdoor to sing "Georgia on My Mind," sweet and clear, to the moment the young, strong Janet Evans passed the torch to the once mighty Ali's trembling hand, this was Atlanta's night to let civilization know that a city that once burned to the ground was now eager to be illuminated by an eternal flame.

A stone's throw from the park where Atlanta nine months ago captured baseball's World Series, a few miles from the dome where football's Super Bowl was played, Atlanta rolled out a blue carpet to what its Olympic committee president, Billy Payne, praised as "the greatest assemblage of athletic talent in the world."

They came from everywhere, from Hong Kong to Congo to Tonga, runners and punchers and tumblers, cycle and horse riders, arrow and gun shooters, iron pumpers and canoe paddlers, to a corner of America that had produced a President of the United States and a King who championed civil rights, but never the Olympic Games.

Libya came. Iraq came. Nobody ignored the party, and nobody crashed it. Every event went smooth as pie, to borrow one Southern expression, although many of the athletes and coaches marching in the Parade of Nations had to come running at full speed, just to cover the distance from one Atlanta stadium to the other and keep pace.

A dedicated U.S. jogger, Bill Clinton, officially declared the Games open, just the way an old veteran of the gridiron, Ronald Reagan, did at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum opening ceremony of 1984.

Clinton shook a fist and beamed when 97-year-old Leon Stukelj, the oldest former Olympian champion, entered the stadium with a skip to his step. And the President will be the first to admit that he got a little misty-eyed when a relay from Atlanta favorite son Evander Holyfield to the California jewel of the pool, Evans, led to her ascending a runway and presenting the torch to Ali.

For virtually everyone in the 83,100-seat stadium, that was a great moment.

Evans herself was a deserving choice, although it did seem odd that an athlete entered in the current competition would be asked to handle ceremonial duties as well. Carl Lewis, who has won more medals than Evans or practically anybody, watched from the infield, a competitor once again himself, as did such multiple medal winners as Mark Spitz and Greg Louganis, who occupied a pedestal among the greatest Olympians ever.

But, as any of these people will tell you, these Games are not supposed to be about medals. They are supposed to be about spirit and participation, which is why athletes from every continent had come to Atlanta this evening, from the all-woman team from Liechtenstein to the men of Lesotho who asked their flight attendants on the journey to Atlanta to please not throw away any food, because so many of their friends back home were starving.

Marching not far behind them was Shaquille O'Neal, the new $120 Million Man, who was smiling more than anyone had seen him do all week, and Charles Barkley, who, on behalf of O'Neal and his "Dream Team" teammates, have generously donated all their Olympic financial gains to the churches that recently were burned in this same part of the South.

It is the same South that is rising again, stone by stone, piece by piece. Atlanta, Ga., is a good place to start.

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