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Atlanta Smiles Through the Pain as Games End


ATLANTA — Juan Antonio Samaranch didn't say the three words Billy Payne wanted to hear--that these Games were "the best ever," as he has done at seven previous closing ceremonies. But no platitude would have wiped away the bombing at Centennial Olympic Park or an Olympic record for operational disorganization anyway.

These were difficult Games, sometimes tragic Games, and the most Samaranch, the president of the International Olympic Committee, would say for them at Sunday night's closing at Olympic Stadium was that they were "most exceptional."

An exceptionally diplomatic term, "exceptional." The dictionary defines the word as "unusual" and "not ordinary" and, on occasion, "much above average."

Payne, the president of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, would no doubt opt for the latter, but Samaranch's restraint was more in tune with the bittersweet mood that carried the 26th Olympiad to its conclusion.

"While we celebrate the success of these Games, we do not forget the tragic explosion of last week, nor do we forget the victims, their families and their friends," Samaranch said before a capacity crowd of 83,100.

"Our thoughts also go back to the tragedy of Munich, where 11 Israeli athletes were killed during the Olympic Games in 1972.

"No act of terrorism has destroyed the Olympic movement, and none ever will. More than ever, we are committed to building a better, more peaceful world in which all forms of terrorism are eradicated," he said.

Samaranch's reference to the murders at Munich was the IOC's first official acknowledgment of the kidnapping and shooting of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists 24 years ago.

Samaranch then asked the audience to stand for a moment of silence "to honor the victims of these terrible acts."

Samaranch then thanked President Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, who was in attendance, the city of Atlanta, the athletes and media and, finally, ACOG, which staged "these Centennial Games, the Games of unity, [which] have indeed been most exceptional."

That was it.

No mention of these Games being "the best ever," the traditional seal of approval Samaranch had bestowed at the end of every Summer and Winter Olympics since 1984.

ACOG officials had anticipated the unprecedented omission and regarded it as an affront to the largest Games in history, Games they considered a huge on-the-field success.

In his remarks at Olympic Stadium on Sunday, Payne alluded to the bomb that killed two and injured 111 at Centennial Olympic Park on July 27, lauding the spirit of the people of Atlanta as they were "called to action when our celebration was interrupted."

Atlanta's closing ceremony pushed the celebration full throttle. The ceremony began with the pop group Boyz II Men singing the national anthem.

Throughout the three-hour presentation, highlights of gold-medal-winning moments were periodically flashed on stadium video screens and upon a section of spectators holding white cards to form a human cinema.

These were the images Payne and ACOG wanted embedded in the global consciousness:

* Michael Johnson becoming the first man to win both the 200- and 400-meter sprints in the same Olympics.

* Carl Lewis winning the long jump at age 35 for his ninth gold medal in four Olympic appearances.

* Kerri Strug landing a final vault through tears and pain to help the U.S. women's gymnastics team win their first Olympic gold medal.

* Canadian Donovan Bailey's wide-eyed exultation after beating a star-studded field, and the world record, with a 100-meter run of 9.84 seconds.

* Irish swimmer Michelle Smith raising her arms triumphantly after winning the women's 400-meter individual medley for her first of three gold medals--an out-of-nowhere ascension so remarkable that Smith spent most of the Games defending herself against charges of performance-enhancing drug use.

* And, the overriding athletic theme of these Games: The resounding achievement of the U.S. women. Women's teams in basketball, gymnastics, soccer and softball all wrapped themselves in Old Glory after claiming gold medals on behalf of the home side.

"Much like the Olympic champion who on his or her day is the best in the world," Payne said, "the people of this city and state have risen, once again, this time to embrace the Olympic spirit and, in doing so, have given the world a stirring performance."

Atlanta also demonstrated it had a sense of humor with a Chaplinesque marching band routine that played, intentionally or not, off ACOG's reputation as the disorganizing committee that couldn't shuttle a bus straight.

The program featured double gold medalist Johnson and American equestrian Michael Matz as carriers of the Olympic and U.S. flags. Matz was voted the honor by his teammates largely because of his act of heroism in 1989, when he helped pull survivors from the wreckage of United Airlines Flight 232, which went down in an Iowa cornfield.

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