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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

Amid Chaos There Were Moments to Remember

First week: Technical and logistical glitches aside, there was plenty of drama on the competition side.

July 28, 1996|MITCHELL LANDSBERG | ASSOCIATED PRESS

ATLANTA — A commentator here suggested that Atlanta should erect a monument to Kerri Strug. If not for her hobbling vault into Olympic history, the first week of the Centennial Games might have been remembered more for what went wrong--the lost buses, the computer glitches, the security lapses--than what went right.

Fortunately, the right stuff went spectacularly right.

All week, the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games was under siege by a furious international press corps and, to a less public extent, the International Olympic Committee.

The transportation system patched together for the games was a shambles, they complained. Technical problems and exasperating delays plagued the IBM-built information system, officially called "Info '96" but quickly dubbed "Info '97" for its slowness. A man with a gun managed to slip into the Olympic Stadium before the opening ceremony, attended by President Clinton and a host of other VIPs. Toilets at the tennis venue overflowed; the lights went out at a basketball game.

"Olympic Chaos," London's Daily Mail blared. "Atlanta Reels," screamed the Mexico City News.

Through it all, Atlanta's Olympic organizers--the group jocularly referred to as the disorganizing committee--remained publicly unfazed. Just look at the games, they kept saying. The games are great.

"The popularity of these games with the people and the wonderful competition are going to be the story of these games--not that technology and transportation were not up to expectations," said Billy Payne, the president of ACOG.

In one sense, Payne could be accused of ducking the issue. Sure, the athletes were doing their job, but did he do his? His job had been to plan the games and provide the necessary backdrop--things like technology and transportation. No one expected him to anchor the 400-meter relay.

In another sense, he may have been right.

No one could complain about the level of competition at the Atlanta Games. No one could say the first week wasn't filled with moments of drama and heartbreak and transcendent exhilaration.

It doesn't get much better than seeing Dot Richardson of the United States pump her fist as she rounds third base after hitting the first home run in Olympic softball history. Or seeing Naim Suleymanoglu of Turkey, a 4-foot-9-inch weightlifter known as the Pocket Hercules, break two world records en route to capturing the Olympic gold for the third consecutive time.

No one who saw it will soon forget the sight of American Amanda Beard surging in the final 50 meters of the 200-meter breaststroke, only to fall inches short of overtaking South Africa's Penny Heyns. Or of Greco-Roman wrestlers Alexander Karelin of Russia and Matt Ghaffari of the United States locked in a leviathan struggle that ended, for the 21st straight time, in a Karelin victory.

The games began stirringly with a widely praised opening ceremony that sent chills through the crowd when Muhammad Ali, the most famous Olympian of modern times, stood alone beneath the Olympic flame, the Olympic torch in his trembling hand.

Right then, people said: Here is the image that will define these games.

They were wrong.

One week in, it seems possible to say that the defining image of these games will be Kerri Strug standing on one leg, then collapsing in agony after landing the vault of her life. Her reward was a gold medal for the U.S. women's gymnastics team and a sudden elevation in her status--from up-and-coming gymnast to national hero.

That courage, that dedication to teamwork, that all-out desire to win encompassed the best of the Olympic tradition in one extraordinary moment.

And a moment that embodied the worst? There were more than a few.

There was Janet Evans, one of the greatest swimmers of all time, failing to qualify for the 400-meter freestyle and then carping about the winner, Michelle Smith of Ireland, implying that she had used drugs. Smith would win three gold medals in the course of the week, all tarnished by unsubstantiated rumors.

There was the crash of an Olympic bus that injured an athlete. And there was a transit delay that caused a judo star from the former Soviet republic of Georgia to miss his weigh-in and be disqualified.

Many foreigners--and not a few Americans--expressed disgust with the rampant commercialization of the Olympics.

"Free sample--$1!" one street vendor hawked in what could be a motto for these games.

John Lucas, a pre-eminent sports historian who has attended every Olympics since 1960, said the Atlanta Games are the most disorganized he has seen "out in the streets." Once spectators and athletes are safely in the venues, the games are functioning well, he said.

"The saviors of the whole thing are the athletes themselves," he said. "They are magnificent."

The problem with the games, Lucas said, is that they have simply gotten too large. There are more nations, more sports, more competitors, more spectators than ever before--about 30 percent more in Atlanta than in Barcelona, according to Lucas. He believes that is too much for Atlanta, too much for Sydney, Australia, site of the 2000 Olympics--too much, perhaps, for any urban area.

"It's the biggest gathering of the human race since World War I and World War II," Lucas said. What he didn't say, but perhaps meant to, was that neither of those events was redeemed by a Kerri Strug.

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