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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | MIKE DOWNEY

The Bittersweet End : Above All, Atlanta Persevered

August 05, 1996|MIKE DOWNEY

ATLANTA — In the "Little Saigon" district of Orange County, there is a Vietnamese radio personality who has enjoyed playing a song called "Nhi's Epee." The tune was composed in honor of Nhi Lan Le, 32, who fled the real Saigon after its fall, attended a high school here in Georgia, and, a couple of years ago, took up the sport of fencing.

Driving home from long days of practice as the Olympics drew near, Nhi broke down crying, imagining herself representing her adopted country. She said, "I visualized this flame inside me. I wanted it to burn bright. It's my flame of will, my flame of determination, my flame of life."

It is at this point that I am expected to report how Nhi Lan Le fenced her way through the women's individual epee competition, won a gold medal and will soon be appearing on a cereal box, at stores from Santa Ana to Ho Chi Minh City.

She did not.

She lost her first match.

I don't care. Nhi Lan Le personifies everything the Atlanta Olympics turned out to be about: rising after a fall, envisioning a brighter tomorrow, getting out there to give everything you've got, and remembering where you are, while never forgetting from where you came.

Atlanta's adventure is over. Last one out of town, turn off the flame.

What happened here, well, historians will endeavor to determine the significance of runners running and swimmers swimming, relative to that of things that go boom in the night, leaving innocent bystanders maimed or dead. For what do you recollect most of Munich, the medals of Mark Spitz or the massacre? Those with long attention spans can remember both.

In one morbid way, the bomb did Atlanta a great service. There are many--myself very much included--who forever would have painted Atlanta as the biggest loser of the Olympics, as a place, like many of the athletes, that began these Games with great expectations but turned out to be overmatched.

Instead, I and others will go home telling of an Atlanta that overcame adversity, made the most of an intolerably bad situation and came out a winner in the true Olympic way, by simply giving everything it had. The price of Alice Hawthorne's life plus more than a hundred casualties was worth far more than any damn Olympic Games, but because there was no way for Atlanta to turn back, it pressed on.

Atlanta will be remembered for its violence.

Atlanta will also be remembered for its valiance.

That's one point I wanted to make, as I sit here thinking about everything I saw and heard, whether it be a barefoot man from the Virgin Islands running the marathon carrying his shoes or one of America's swimmin' women, Amy Van Dyken, describing her favorite Olympic memories as, in no particular order, that she won four gold medals, that "Mrs. Clinton told me to call her Hillary," and that "I got to give Jimmy Carter a big ol' hug."

Just in case, however, there are athletes from other corners of the globe that NBC neglected to tell you about--nahhh, would NBC do that?--I would like to single out a precious few.

Venuste Niyongabo.

Ever heard of him? Did you know if he was a him or a her?

Back home in the town of Bujumbura, the president of Burundi was taking refuge at the U.S. ambassador's residence after being attacked by stone-throwing mourners at a funeral. Civil war had again ruptured this Central African nation, where a military coup was feared. But the only thing young Niyongabo wanted to do was win the 5,000 run at the Olympics--which he did--before being returned, harshly, to reality.

Gillian Rolton.

Ever heard this name? May I safely assume that you have heard of Kerri Strug, but not of her?

Back home in Australia, her friends and fans cannot understand why America is not feeling warm and fuzzy all over after what Rolton did at these Olympic Games. Her bravery and fortitude were positively Struggian. So, is it because she is an Australian, or is it because she is an equestrian, that it went virtually unnoticed here when Gillian Rolton was thrown by her horse, broke her collarbone, broke two ribs . . . then got back in the saddle and rode, preserving her team's gold medal?

Wang Junxia.

Ever heard this name? Can you pronounce this name?

A billion Chinese can. She is a Michael Johnson, a Marie-Jose Perec--please tell me you know her--in her own right. All those rumors of performance-enhancing drugs, Wang and other Chinese athletes heard and endured the whispers. Wang won the women's 5,000-meter run, China's first gold medal in track, ever. Then she ran second in the 10,000. I'll tell you what doctors don't have to test. They don't have to test her heart.

And Nhi Lan Le?

She stuck a Post-It note above her bunk bed in the Olympic village.

It read: "Right Distance. Right Time. High Belief For Every Touch."

This was her motivation, before, during and after her Olympic experience. Nhi Lan Le lost? Not where I'm sitting. Wish I could give her a big ol' hug.

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