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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | BILL PLASCHKE

Looking for Right Spirit? Begin List With Ghaffari

August 04, 1996|BILL PLASCHKE

ATLANTA — A fancy news conference was held here Saturday to bestow the Olympic Spirit Award on the U.S. athlete who most embodied the Games' ideals.

But this story is not about that fancy news conference. Because media voters messed up.

They gave it to the cute little gymnast and sleek track athlete from Houston.

They should have given it to the fat, bald guy from Iran.

Not that U.S. wrestler Matt Ghaffari seems to mind.

"I'm not somebody like Kerri Strauss," he said.

That's Kerri Strug, who shared the award with Carl Lewis, who follows in the steps of previous winners Greg Louganis, Gail Devers and Paul Wylie.

Ghaffari does not fit in the above sentence. He gets names wrong. He gets protocol wrong. He even got the gold medal wrong.

Last we saw of him, he was lying on his back at the foot of his Russian conqueror, a loser in the Greco-Roman heavyweight championship bout, a silver medalist by the margin of 1-0.

What he didn't get wrong was the power of that medal.

"I have learned, it has magic," he said.

In the 11 days since, he has spread that feeling throughout a city that badly needed to believe these Olympics still had magic left.

Ghaffari was the first athlete to visit with victims of the Centennial Park bombing. He has since been the only one to do it by himself, without media or advisors or bodyguards.

Ghaffari was the first athlete to make an appearance in Centennial Park when it reopened four days after the bombing.

Ghaffari is the only athlete to interrupt a competition to remember the bomb's casualties.

Everywhere he has gone, commoners have worn his medal.

"Feel it," he tells them. "Feel the power."

And Ghaffari is one of the few athletes here who cannot benefit from his benevolence.

He will leave the Olympic team after its trip to the White House next week and become an assistant wrestling coach at Cleveland State.

Annual salary: $16,000.

Speaking engagements should earn him enough money to support his wife and child, but no amount of publicity will turn a Greco-Roman wrestler into anything other than a big guy who works in funny clothes.

"I am doing this because this medal belongs to the American people," Ghaffari said. "I'm just its holder."

This, from someone who spent his first 16 years in Tehran before moving to this country 18 years ago.

This, from someone who became a naturalized citizen during such a bad time for U.S.-Iran relations that a college coach changed his last name to "Ghaffario" so fans wouldn't hassle him.

He was still somewhat unsure about his allegiance in 1988 when he tried to wrestle for the Iranian national team in the Seoul Olympics. Then his new coaches told him to put away his Western clothes, grow a beard, and treat the Americans like the enemy.

He quit the team before the opening ceremonies, returned to the United States, spent eight years waiting for last week.

"I have worked my butt off to be an American," he said.

This was his thought last Sunday, in the second full day after the bombing, when he picked up the phone and called Georgia Baptist Hospital.

"I told them who I was, but they wouldn't let me talk to anybody," he said.

He phoned again. This time he got through to a nurse's station, was transferred to a doctor, then transferred to a hospital psychologist, who said they would love for somebody from the Olympics to actually show up.

Soon he was walking down the hall for a meeting with Fallon Stubbs, injured daughter of Alice Hawthorne, the only person killed as a direct result of the bombing.

"All of her family members were saying, 'Here comes somebody from the Dream Team,' " Ghaffari said. "I said, 'No, I'm just a wrestler. But I'm also a father and a husband.' "

He put the medal on Hawthorne's widower, John, and told him to feel the power.

"I said, 'You've got to be the hero now, man,' " Ghaffari said.

He did the same to Fallon.

"She said, 'You have a big head,' " he recalled. "I told her, 'You know what the real magic in this medal is? Wear it and you won't have to pay for a dinner or movie for the rest of your life.' "

Ghaffari came only to visit Hawthorne's family, at their specific request, but soon nurses were taking him from floor to floor.

While Olympic athletes were looking for cover, and Olympic officials were trying to cover themselves, Ghaffari was spending three hours doing his best work of the week.

Two days later, when Centennial Park reopened, he was there at 8 a.m., still wearing his silver medal.

Two days after that, he was sitting next to victim Christian Sobb at a freestyle wrestling match. During a break in the action, he helped Sobb walk on crutches to the center of the mat.

While Kerri Strug was discussing million-dollar deals and Carl Lewis was causing dissension on the track team, Matt Ghaffari was standing next to Sobb as he became an honorary Olympian.

"Yeah," he said when told that Strug and Lewis had won the Olympic Spirit Award. "But they won gold medals."

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