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COMMENTARY / MIKE KUPPER : These Games Big, and That's No Snow Job

August 05, 1996|MIKE KUPPER

ATLANTA — So, this is how they do the Summer Olympics.

As a veteran of Winter Games from Lake Placid to Lillehammer and points in between, I thought I'd know what to expect from this first working experience at the Summer Games.

And I did. To a point. For apart from the obvious--snow in the winter, no snow in the summer--there are some differences.

The big difference, of course, is just that, BIG! The Summer Games are much bigger than the Winter--more athletes, more countries, more sports, more fans, more reporters, more hoopla, more controversy, more of whatever there is.

And the intensity level is up. The Winter Games still retain a certain lightheartedness, a genteelness, at least a vestige of the we-do-this-for-fun mentality. There wasn't much of that here. Hard to imagine that synchronized swimming could be more important than curling, but that seems to be the case.

The charm was missing too. Part of that is simply geography. There is no way big ol' Atlanta could ever be as charming as quaint little Lillehammer, or even bustling, boisterous Calgary. But a little effort wouldn't have hurt.

The International Olympic Committee folks were not just whistling "Dixie" when they criticized the Atlanta organizers for allowing these Games to be turned into a bazaar. There were nearly as many street vendors selling schlock as there were visitors, and there certainly was no shortage of visitors.

Talk about crowds. At the Winter Games, people come primarily to see the competition and do their sightseeing on the side. Here, it seems, vast multitudes showed up merely to be a part of what was happening. There just couldn't have been enough event tickets for the throngs that descended on this city.

You've read about the transportation snafus. Ever seen pedestrian gridlock? Common occurrence here, especially in and around Centennial Park when it was reopened after the bombing. In the last couple of weeks, when the folks here said y'all, they weren't kidding.

What struck me, though, were not so much the differences between the Winter and Summer Games as the similarities.

There are the glamour sports: gymnastics, swimming, track and basketball in the Summer Games; figure skating, Alpine skiing and hockey in the Winter. And there are the, um, different sports: field hockey, team handball and canoe/kayaking in the Summer Games; luge, biathlon and freestyle skiing in the Winter.

There is the ambivalence we, Americans, seem to have toward the Games, Winter or Summer. We can't seem to decide whether Olympics are really very important, or merely an off-beat diversion every few years.

We seem to expect "our" athletes to win--or at least get a medal--in every event, yet when the Games are over, we return to our usual sporting pursuits, most of us giving no more thought to volleyball or diving or bobsledding or short-track speedskating until they show up again on our TV screens during the next Olympics, when, of course, we expect "our" athletes to win.

The Europeans have quite another attitude. They seem to consider Olympic sports--Winter and Summer--very important, follow many of them much more avidly than we do, yet understand much more readily that even Olympic Games still are merely games and that winning is not always as important as trying.

There is the mixed message we get from the Olympic pooh-bahs themselves. The Olympic ideal is individual striving. Yet, the Games are terribly nationalistic.

We also had a most curious mixture of professional and amateur athletes, and will have equally curious mixtures at Nagano, Japan, for the '98 Winter Games and Sydney, Australia, for the 2000 Summer Games.

The IOC blithely explains that the Olympics are for the world's best athletes and that the various sports' international governing bodies determine who will be eligible. But that leads to the sort of strange arrangement we had here, where the U.S. basketball team included the best players money can buy--and does--and the U.S. baseball team was made up of college kids.

I suppose the IOC could always argue that compared to the Dream Team, the rest of the basketball teams here were amateurs, which makes up for U.S. baseball having to match its amateurs against the Cuban pros and Japanese semipros.

Ah, well. It's far from a perfect world, so why should we expect perfection, or even consistency, from the Olympics?

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