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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

Two Sides of Flame

Flame: Residents Echo Enthusiasm of Spectators Along Route.

July 20, 1996|MIKE HISERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — Richard Joseph sat comfortably atop a newsstand, appearing somewhat oblivious of the surrounding swirl of sound, color and humanity.

Anticipating throngs of revelers, he had staked out a familiar perch to watch the Olympic flame pass on Friday.

"I was right here in '95 under a shower of confetti after the Braves won the World Series," Joseph said. "I think there are more people here today."

Police estimated more than 5,000 jammed one downtown intersection at midafternoon, choking traffic on streets and sidewalks and grinding the relay itself to a near crawl.

In most areas, the torch arrived more than two hours behind schedule, a blessing for merchants and street vendors and only mildly irritating for ardent flame followers.

"I was out here three hours to see [the flame] about three seconds, but it was worth it," said Aretha Hill, a teacher from Marietta, Ga. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a chance to see history being made. I couldn't miss it."

Similar sentiments were echoed the length of the torch route in Atlanta as enthusiastic crowds braved sweltering heat and humidity for the chance to catch a passing glance at the flame on its final legs of an 84-day, nearly 15,000-mile journey across the nation.

Police and security personnel offered only mild resistance as thousands of spectators, some proudly waving their national flags, clogged usually bustling streets long before the relay was even scheduled to pass. Thousands more watched from the windows of the city's high-rise office and apartment buildings.

At City Hall, the flame was greeted by former United Nations ambassador Andrew Young, former mayor of Atlanta Maynard Jackson and current Mayor Bill Campbell, who proclaimed, "The flame burns brightest in the heart of Atlanta."

The flame entered the city in the early morning hours of Thursday after departing from the top of Stone Mountain, once a popular rallying post for the Ku Klux Klan.

Barry Saunders, a member of a task force that helped pave the way for the flame, found that segment particularly moving in light of its historical significance.

"To see the type of interracial emotion, love and international spirit that was apparent there was very special," he said. "When you feel that kind of emotion and see people's tears coming out, it can't help but affect you."

Within the city, as it was in most places during its trek across the country, the flame was met enthusiastically no matter what time of day or night.

At Piedmont Park in North Atlanta, a crowd police estimated at 6,000 danced, sang and staged mock relays using modified flashlights to pass time until the torch exchange between David Emanuel and Kevin Gosper finally took place at 2:18 a.m.

The relay had been scheduled to enter the park more than 2 1/2 hours earlier.

Then too, it wasn't Gosper who took the exchange from Emanuel. For security reasons, Gosper was an alias given to Prince Albert of Monaco, an event organizer said.

Emanuel, head of the torch relay, said even he was not aware that he was handing off to royalty until he was told while being shuttled to his assigned area.

"A nice guy," he said of the prince.

And of his experience carrying the flame? "Incredible," Emanuel said. "Your heart is pounding and the crowd is cheering and it's all you can do to make your legs move. The city is electrified right now."

Later in the morning, the relay made its way through a bohemian section of the city known as Little Five Points, where bearers were greeted by crowds of people, some wearing native costumes.

Still later, runners reportedly were hailed by flag-waving patrons and employees of a South Atlanta strip club.

Nowhere over the route did the flame face any trouble.

"The relay is a chance for people to bring out the best of themselves, to put aside everyday life and their differences in order to feel the goodwill of the Olympic spirit," said Claire Nickelson, an Atlanta Committee of the Olympic Games spokeswoman who toured the nation with the torch relay.

"That may sound trite, but that's what we've seen along the route. This is a chance for people to just celebrate and look at what's good."

The flames' entourage, including organization members, support staff and sponsorship vendors, has approached 500 for most of the relay, officials said.

Among Nickelson's most memorable moments were the ceremony at the Oklahoma City bombing site and a nighttime procession through Arlington National Cemetery during which fireflies and the flame provided the only light.

Sherry Jennings, an ACOG member, recalled entire populations of small towns turning out for whistle stops as the flame traveled by train through the Midwest.

She said the torch's reception in Huntington Beach, shortly after the relay started at the Los Angeles Coliseum on April 27, offered a glimpse of what was to come.

"Even then and there, 2,500 miles from here, people were sitting at the side of the road at 3 or 4 in the morning to see the flame," Jennings said. "Since then, along the way, it's been easy to get into a routine sometimes. But then I'll see the face of a local person and they'll have tears in their eyes and I'm reminded again of how special this is."

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