U.S. Olympic Festival : Houston Celebrates the Occasion With a Party

Times Staff Writer

Here in Yew-ston, where, we are frequently told, the greatest athletes in the world breathe the sweetest air, we had us a party Friday night. Invited a few folks over to the Astrodome.

Everyone wore a cowboy hat and boots, and there was fringe on the girls’ skirts. We waved the flag--the red, white and blue one with only the one star.

Almost forgot. We got to talking about The Great State of Texas so much we near forgot to mention the U.S. Olympic Festival. Those were the U.S. Olympic Committee officials in the corner with the tight smiles. Don’t ask a Texan to give a party and expect to get a word in edgewise.

Friday night’s expansive, huge, bloated U.S. Olympic Festival opening ceremony was meant to celebrate amateur sport. The festival is a showcase for the nation’s Olympians of tomorrow. Instead, 32,401 fans were treated to what amounted to a Chamber of Commerce highlight film. Most out-of-town sportswriters wanted to hear about Texas’ sesquicentennial about as much as they wanted to spell it.


The problem with most international sports events is the rampant nationalism. No trouble with that here. What we have here in Texas is rampant statism.

By the time “Houston’s own” Carl Lewis carried the other flag with all the stars onto the AstroTurf to lead the athletes processional, the crowd was ready to cheer anything that even had a remote twang to it.

Some 3,000 athletes followed Lewis, marching behind the banners that delineate the four geographical teams here. To nobody’s great surprise, the appearance of the South team drew a roaring cheer. But the ovation was premature.

The Texans on the South team decided to march in apart, behind the banner of the Lone Star.


The Texas delegation was by far the rowdiest to enter the arena. Their enthusiasm was infectious. As the renegade Texas athletes circled the infield behind the South team, Texans who had been placed on other teams broke rank and joined their fellow statesmen.

The arrival of the athletes, more than one hour into the 1 1/2-hour program, lifted the mood from glitzy variety show to youthful celebration. Wherever athletes gather and are told to behave, there will surely follow pandemonium. Many of the athletes here are in their first major competition, and to parade in front of 32,000 fans is heady stuff.

As festival ushers attempted to herd each team around the infield in some semblance of cohesiveness, the athletes danced and waved for the cheering crowd. Among the colorful marchers were the usual unauthorized “Hi Mom” signs and others carrying various personal messages athletes no doubt hoped to beam home via ESPN, which televised the ceremonies.

One section of the North team hoisted a cardboard polar bear, an apparent reference to their regional climate.


It will be an achievement of no small measure for the athletes to sustain over the 10 days of the festival the youthful exuberance they showed Friday night.

The crowd offered only polite applause to the cavalcade of drill teams, western dancers, Mexican dancers, bands, color guards and 100 pre-teen fiddlers in red cowboy hats. The arena warmed with the arrival of rock and roll group Otis Day and the Knights. When the group cut loose on “Shout,” the collective inhibitions in the Astrodome fell away. Impromptu dancing broke out between baton twirlers and trombone players, while square dancers from the Texas Hoedown segment mixed it up with the Folkloric Dancers from the Mexican Fiesta group.

The festival torch arrived, carried by Olympic sprinter Kirk Baptiste and diminutive gymnast Kristie Phillips. Guess in which Great Texas City Kirk and Kristie live.

The Olympic Festival Torch was first lit June 21 at the summit of 14,000-foot Pike Peak near Colorado Springs, where a permanent flame burns in tribute to the 1,100 Americans who have won Olympic gold medals since 1896.


From there the torch crisscrossed the state on a 4,600-mile course. Hundreds of runners from Texas ran through 125 cities, although organizers do reluctantly admit that between Midland and Lubbock the torch traveled by car. Hey, it’s a big state.

Houstonians are especially proud of The Desert Rats--a group of two dozen lawyers who used their vacation time to run the torch day and night the 625 miles from Colorado Springs to El Paso in four days.

The torch, flame blazing, was brought to the Astrodome Friday night via bicycle. It was then entrusted to Baptiste and Phillips. The pair mounted a platform on the floor of the Astrodome and lit the torch to officially open the competition.

Festival chairman Ernest Deal opened another kind of competition when, in his remarks during the lighting ceremony, he took the opportunity to announce Houston’s interest in bidding as a site for a future Summer Olympic Games.


“In 10 or 12 years, when it becomes North America’s turn to host the Olympics, there is only one place for them to be,” Deal said. “That is right here. We want our gold medal.”

Why wait? If they’re giving medals for showmanship, give Houston one right now.