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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

Ueberroth Watches Torch Being Passed : The Man Who Led a Revival of the Games in 1984 Gets Nervous in Atlanta, but It's Not Same

July 20, 1996|BILL DWYRE | TIMES SPORTS EDITOR

ATLANTA — He was once on the cover of Time magazine. Man of the year, it said. That made everybody else in the world at least No. 2.

Friday night, Peter Ueberroth was mostly a familiar face in the crowd, a very special crowd of 83,100 that rejoiced in the opening ceremonies of Atlanta's 1996 Olympic Games. Mostly, he was one of those double-takes you make, nudging the person next to you: "Isn't that, uh. . . ."

Like almost everyone in this bursting-with-pride Southern city,, Ueberroth was nervous.

"I want so much for it to go well for them," he said Friday morning, only hours before the Games began. "Their goal is to be the best Games ever, and I hope they achieve that."

As he watched the nearly four hours of pomp, circumstance and goose bumps, his thoughts certainly drifted to his own goose bumps, the ones he had 12 years ago. And he will think of the man who gave them to him, and to the world, on that magical night in Los Angeles, July 28, 1984.

"I will be remembering David Wolper, thinking about all he did for me, for the opening ceremonies, for the Olympics," Ueberroth said.

"I will have that knot in my stomach for the Atlanta people, but it won't be anything like the one I had that night in the Coliseum."

*

The Olympic movement was in a bit of a fix in the late 1970s and early '80s. It had had a less-than-smash-hit run on the world's center stage, starting with the pre-event violence in Mexico City in 1968 and continuing with the Israeli hostage tragedy in Munich in 1972, the financial failures of Montreal in 1976 and the Western-nation boycott of the Moscow Games in 1980. If nothing else, it appeared as if the International Olympic Committee might be best served by avoiding cities starting with the letter "M" as future sites for its showcase Summer Games.

It had come to this: In 1979, the IOC had as bidders for the 1984 Summer Olympics two cities--Los Angeles and Tehran. At least the voting didn't drag out.

The Olympics needed innovation, creativity, discipline, dedication and new slants on all the things it had done since Athens in 1896.

Into the breach came Ueberroth, a buttoned-down, tight-lipped, little-known businessman from Los Angeles. At first, nobody was quite sure if he was totally in charge or merely part of the management team. In a few short months, everybody was sure. He had lived his own creed: 90% of responsibility is taken, not given.

The Olympic movement never knew what hit it. He was an original, a bottom-line type who found solutions while others held meetings.

*

There was a problem. In the planning for the '84 Games, Ueberroth and his hand-picked management team disagreed on a key element. Ueberroth's advisors believed a torch relay that would work its way, coast to coast, eventually bringing the Olympic flame to Los Angeles for the opening, was a bad idea. They said that security problems such an event brought were huge. They told Ueberroth he would need 45,000 parade permits, covering each little city the torch passed through along the way.

"I had always believed in a team-effort approach to decision making," Ueberroth recalled Friday. "I always tried to listen carefully, then allow a group decision.

"But there were a couple of times, leading up to 1984, that I slept on a decision and it still didn't feel right."

The torch relay was one of them. Ueberroth, in the vast minority, ruled that it would be part of the '84 Games' legacy, parade permits be damned.

"Right from the start, the feedback we got was positive," Ueberroth said. "We knew, in this case, that we had done the right thing. In the end, an estimated 44 million people got out of their easy chairs, went to the roadside and watched the torch. And once they did, it belonged to them. Every one of them."

*

Because it was the site of the last U.S. Olympics, the 1996 torch run began months ago in Los Angeles. Friday, it worked its way into the suburbs and heart of the city of Atlanta. Television worked the streets, interviewing the people standing curbside. One woman said the torch's passing made her cry.

Just before 12:30 a.m. in Atlanta, when Muhammad Ali, the last torch-bearer, shaking dramatically in perhaps the most emotional moment of the ceremonies, lit the flame that lit the caldron in new Olympic Stadium, millions more joined her.

*

In the early 1980s, Ueberroth and his people had another problem. In order to have a torch relay, they needed a flame. And this being the Olympics, they needed the real thing.

The problem was, the real thing was in Greece, and the Cold War made the politics of dialing up Athens and sending a Concorde with a metal box and good ventilation made that nearly impossible.

"We asked the Greeks. They wouldn't give us the flame," Ueberroth recalled.

For others, diplomacy and negotiations and appeals to the IOC and pressure in the press would have been the approach. For Ueberroth, the solution was much simpler: Simply trick the Greeks.

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