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17 Days of Story : From Start to Finish at the Summer Games Through the Eyes of The Times

August 05, 1996|STEVE HORN | Times Staff Writer


Six years after Atlanta was awarded the Games of the XXVI Olympiad, there was no question there would be opening ceremonies. There was no question there would be a salute to great Olympians of the past. Everyone expected dancing children. But who knew about the pickup trucks?

As a record 197 nations with almost 11,000 athletes marched into Centennial Olympic Stadium, the big question was: Who would light the flame? The last time the Olympics were held in the United States, decathlon great Rafer Johnson was accorded the honor in Los Angeles.

The drama built as boxer Evander Holyfield, an Atlanta native, brought the torch into the stadium, where he was joined by Greek hurdler Paraskevi Patoulidou, who, four years earlier in Barcelona, had become the first woman from that nation to win a track and field gold medal. They handed it off to swimmer Janet Evans, who was trying to become the most decorated U.S. female Olympian.

But then the crowd roared as Evans gave the torch to a vision in white. Muhammad Ali, shaking from Parkinson's syndrome, lit a fuse that ignited the caldron and the world.


As the events began, so did the problems. Vehicles broke down, people couldn't get to their venues, streets were clogged with traffic. And it was almost 100 degrees.

U.S. swimmers, who were not expected to dominate, got off to a slow start as well. Angel Martino finished third in the 100-meter freestyle, then gave her bronze medal to a cancer-stricken fan. The rest of the world was picking it up in the pool. China's Le Jingyi won the 100 freestyle. Ireland's Michelle Smith came out of nowhere to win the 400 individual medley and Belgium's Fred Deburghgraeve set a world record in the 100 breaststroke.

Meanwhile, the U.S. men's basketball team (referred to by some as the Dream Team) started a trend that would continue throughout the Games. The Americans got off to a slow start against Argentina (the lights even went out for a while), then they pulled away at the finish for a 96-68 victory.

Trivia buffs: The first medal of the Games went to Poland's Renata Mauer in the women's air rifle.


Actually, it was more of a splash by the U.S. swimmers, as Tom Dolan defeated University of Michigan teammate Eric Namesnik in the 400 individual medley to become the first American to win a gold medal in Atlanta. That was followed by the men's 800 freestyle relay team cruising to victory. And little Amanda Beard of Irvine, teddy bear and all, won a silver in the 100 breaststroke behind Penny Heyns of South Africa, a 1-2 finish that would be repeated in the 200 breaststroke.

The U.S. women's gymnastics team got off to a strong start, sitting in second place behind Russia after the compulsories. Someone said, "Wouldn't it be great if Kerri Strug were to injure her leg tomorrow, then make the courageous final vault as the women won their first team gold medal?" Someone else said, "Yeah, right."

Meanwhile, the International Olympic Committee was concerned that Atlanta officials and some corporate sponsors could not deliver on promises in areas related to technology. At least we thought they were: The story didn't come in until very late because of some computer foul-up.

DAY 4: JULY 23, 1996 / A SPLASH . . . AND A CRASH

The good: A 1-2 finish by Beth Botsford and Whitney Hedgepeth in the 100-meter backstroke, an Olympic-record performance by the U.S. women's 400 freestyle relay team, and an exciting duel in the 100 freestyle between Russia's Alexander Popov and Gary Hall Jr., won by Popov.

The bad: Janet Evans failed to qualify for the final in the 400 freestyle, in which she holds the world record. She finished ninth in the preliminaries. That led to . . .

The ugly: Evans, who had passed the torch to Ali, who had become America's sweetheart, always a picture of class, raised the issue of fairness after she failed to quality. Ireland's Michelle Smith, who would go on to win her second of three gold medals, was a late entrant but was given special dispensation by the IOC. Then came rumors of drug use by Smith, a 26-year-old late bloomer.

Elsewhere, Turkey and Greece got together for a rousing weightlifting duel, with Turkey's Naim Suleymanoglu, the Pocket Hercules, defeating Valerio Leonidis, the Pocket Zeus, on his last attempt.

U.S. Men's Basketball Team 87, Angola 54.

DAY 5: JULY 24, 1996 / GOLDEN!

Talk about getting carried away with a gold medal. Kerri Strug, making perhaps the most courageous leap since Evel Knievel tried to carry the Snake River, wrapped up the U.S. team championship. Subsequent scoring nitpickers (John Tesh, please don't read this) noted that the Americans would have won even without Strug's last vault, but would Bela Karolyi have picked up the little waif if it hadn't been important? Strug said she was going to attend UCLA, rather than cash in on her success. Pay attention, there will be a quiz later.

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