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U.S. OLYMPIC FESTIVAL : Host State Embraces Its Games

The U.S. Olympic Festival sometimes seems to get lost in the shadows.

It’s sort of a warmup for the main event, a lounge show for a headline entertainer who appears only once every four years. The Festival is a way to keep the performers sharp, the audience attentive and the machinery in gear until the spotlight is again cast on the Olympic Games.

This is one of those years when the shadows loom even larger, with the Pan Am Games, involving Western Hemisphere nations, scheduled for next month in Indianapolis.

Us against Them, whomever “they” may be, is always more interesting than Us against Us.

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Maybe so, but here in North Carolina, the Festival is it, the only Games in town, and the spotlight has been turned way up.

The big national events go to the northern cities above or to the sunny areas to the south. For North Carolinians this is the Olympics and the Super Bowl all in one, and they intend to soak in every thrill, whether it be on the unfamiliar field of team handball or the oh-so-familiar basketball court.

There was a torch run before the start of the Festival and it was embraced with every bit as much enthusiasm as the similar run through Los Angeles for the 1984 Olympics.

Four thousand runners carried the torch through 400 North Carolina cities and towns in 26 days, and over2,800 miles.

When the torch passed through tiny Siler City at 2 one morning, a welcoming committee of 1,200 turned out.

When 10-year-old Karen Beard turned up the driveway of the Guy Troy farm in Liberty at 3:30 a.m., torch held high, 500 cheered her on while loudspeakers softly carried a song from “Chariots of Fire.” Without a word, the crowd formed a semicircle around the girl and watched the torch burn.

They want to watch everything in this state.

At last year’s Festival in Houston, a record 10,000 viewed the men’s championship basketball game. A crowd of at least 16,000 will be on hand at the Dean Smith Center in Chapel Hill when the gold medal is decided later this week.

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The women’s gymnastics finals next Sunday at the Dean Smith Center are sold out at 20,140, which will not only make it the largest crowd to ever watch a gymnastics meet in this country, but perhaps the largest anywhere, anytime.

Total ticket sales for the Festival already have exceeded $2 million and are threatening the Festival record of $2.4 million, set last year.

A crowd of 52,700 packed its way into Carter-Finley Stadium at North Carolina State on Friday night to watch the opening ceremonies, attended by 74 Valley athletes and coaches.

They didn’t have Rafer Johnson to carry the torch or David Wolper to spotlight it, but they had just about everything else in a $700,000 show that included everything from a tape of the “passing the torch to a new generation” portion of President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address to parachutists landing at midfield, jet planes buzzing the stadium and the largest fireworks show ever held in the South.

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All this excitement is a welcome change for North Carolinians. The nationwide war against cigarette smoking is slowly decimating Tobacco Road. North Carolina has been economically dependent on tobacco for so long that the move to diversify has been slow and painful. The American Tobacco Co. recently packed up and shipped out of Durham.

So the chance to get on a national stage and show other industries what North Carolina has to offer couldn’t have been better timed.

State officials literally have been building new paths to their door to replace Tobacco Road. The construction schedule for a highway was moved up so it could be completed in time for the Festival. One portion of road was still hot and steamy from fresh asphalt when the torch was carried across it.

New flowers are in evidence everywhere along all the highways.

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When one North Carolinian called to complain about the $500,000 price tag for the flowers, an operator told her: “We’re having friends over.”

David Wolper couldn’t have said it any better.


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