Let the Games Begin

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Five years 10 months ago, it seemed certain the dateline you have just read would say Athens. That unquestionably was the name International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch thought he would see when he opened the envelope containing the result of the vote to select the host city for the Centennial Games. Instead, he announced Atlanta.

"We decided the Centennial is for looking forward, not looking back," IOC Vice President Richard Pound of Canada said later of the decision for Atlanta over Athens, the site of the first Modern Games in 1896. "While we honor our traditions, we are about the future. That's why we chose the new world over the old."

So here we are, hours before tonight's opening ceremonies of the 1996 Summer Games at the Centennial Olympic Stadium. If this is the future, are we sure we want to go there?

Downtown Atlanta looks like midway at the state fair, with street vendors selling everything from alligator sausage to T-shirts with mammoth, nude breasts on the front. Most large corporations that paid $40 million each to become official sponsors have their own tents. "Welcome to BudWorld," a barker outside one shouts. Coca-Cola has its own block, with a 60-foot caldron shaped like one of its familiar bottles.

Traffic on Peachtree Street is backed up for miles. Tempers are flaring on jammed rapid transit trains, but the trains are so crowded that no one can throw a punch. Newspapers warn of pickpockets, despite the presence of a security force of 30,000 from federal, state, county, city and private agencies--the largest force ever for anything other than a war. The city warns of water shortages. The heat is rising.

On the other hand. . . .

If any place ever had a right to call itself a global village, it is Atlanta between tonight's opening ceremonies and the closing ceremonies Aug. 4. For the first time, there will be 100% attendance from the countries in the Olympic movement. The b-word--boycott--has hardly been spoken.

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, there are more countries (197) involved than ever before. There also will be more athletes (about 10,700, including a record 3,800 women) in more events (271) and more sports (26) than ever before. For those who think of the IOC as stuffy, two sports the members admitted are beach volleyball and mountain biking. Hey, Juan dude, party hardy!

Indeed, these Games have a chance to be the sports festival that Baron Pierre de Coubertin of France envisioned more than a century ago instead of the clash of ideologies that threatened to destroy them in the four decades after World War II.

That does not mean that the Americans, Russians and Germans are less interested in winning; it's just that the medals no longer will be used to keep score in the debate between communism and capitalism. (The Chinese might still want to engage in that game, but the state-of-the-art drug testing equipment is expected to keep them in line. The Cubans were sunk before they started by the defections of two boxers and a pitcher.)

Now, however, that the subject has been raised, who will win the most medals?

The United States, with a force of 890 athletes and a support staff of 188 coaches and officials, will be disappointed if it does not. The Unified Team won 112 medals, including 45 golds, four years ago in Barcelona to 108 and 37 for the runner-up United States. But the Unified Team is no more, having splintered into 15 teams representing the former Soviet republics, and the United States has the home court, field, track, lake and ocean (yachting is off the coast of Savannah) advantage.

Some U.S. athletes would be spectacular on any shore. Sprinter Michael Johnson could become the first man to win the 200 and 400 meters. Carl Lewis in the long jump could become the first man since discus thrower Al Oerter to win the same track and field event in four consecutive Olympics. With two gold medals, swimmer Janet Evans would tie Bonnie Blair as the most decorated female American. Heavyweight wrestler Bruce Baumgartner, who will carry the U.S. flag in the opening ceremonies, is going for his third gold medal. The U.S. women's softball team has a 110-1 record in international competition since 1986. The U.S. women's basketball team is 52-0 in exhibitions. Dream Team III could lose only to Dream Team I.

With a $415-million budget over the last four years, the U.S. Olympic Committee also is operating more efficiently than ever before. Even the men's field hockey team might win its first game ever. USOC officials translate it into 136 medals, 48 golds.

The end of East Bloc-West Bloc tensions might never be more evident than in the opening ceremonies, which students of the Olympic movement expect to provide a stark contrast to the bombastic display of Americana at the start of the most recent Games in the United States in 1984. Between the Bicentennial and the Statue of Liberty extravaganzas, the L.A. Olympics are looked back on as the second in a trilogy of opportunities for Americans to celebrate themselves.

"Now the whole world is watching to see what a post-Cold War America looks like," said John MacAloon, a University of Chicago cultural anthropologist. "Everyone has a very big stake in this."

That is a challenge for Hollywood producer Don Mischer, who is in charge of the opening and closing ceremonies. It is not his only one. When hired by the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games after a 10-month search, he was told he would be required to present 100 years of Olympic history along with impressions of the United States and the Deep South.

"Your mission, if you should choose to accept, Mr. Mischer. . . ."

The Deep South part is particularly prickly because ACOG officials wanted him to forget about the Civil War and slavery and focus on the booming business climate. As Mischer told USA Today: "How are we supposed to make a number about economic opportunity? Have 5,000 guys dancing with briefcases?"

But as has become obvious in the last six years, ACOG does not speak for Atlanta. A number of people here continue to fight the Civil War, as evidenced by demonstrations for and against Georgia's flag at the state Capitol this week. Opponents argue that the flag is a symbol of oppression because it contains the stars and bars of the Confederate states. Proponents, mostly representing the Sons of the Confederacy, are angry because ACOG will not allow the flag to be flown at Olympic venues.

Then, something occurs like Wednesday night's TWA tragedy in New York and Atlanta is thrust back into the real world complexities facing a rising international city. The questions here Thursday on officials' minds: Was the crash a result of terrorism, and, if so, what are the implications for the Olympics?

Declaring Atlanta the safest city in the world at this point in time, Mayor Bill Campbell said that it is difficult to imagine the security net tightening further without shutting down the Games before they start.

"You cannot be prisoner to terrorism or the threat of terrorism or we will have to hold the Olympics in a television studio where no one could come," he said.

With a still-fluid schedule designed to fit its prime-time needs, NBC could hardly be happier if the Games were in a studio. It's not just a U.S. show. An estimated 2.3 billion people, accounting for 85% of the world's television sets, will be tuned in at one point or another.

NBC's sports president, Dick Ebersol, predicts that 200 million U.S. viewers will watch at least one hour.

As for the nation's other 60 million people, he said one-third are infants and the other two-thirds are "on vacation in the wilderness."

They will miss some compelling stories. Belarus gymnast Vitaly Scherbo, who won six gold medals in 1992, was inspired to try to win more after his wife's recovery from a near-fatal automobile accident. Cuban half-miler Ana Fidelia Quirot lost her unborn child and almost died in a kerosene fire but came back to win the world championships last summer. The United States' Scott Donie won a silver medal from the platform in 1992, then developed a fear of the 10-meter height. He had to crawl down from the tower during a competition. But he's back in the Olympics on the springboard.

There is nowhere more appropriate for them to gather than Atlanta, a city that rose from the ashes 132 years ago.

Atlanta reinvented itself. But as what? Someone once called it "south of the North but north of the South." It was home to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Ku Klux Klan. It is home to some of the world's best-known companies, such as Coca-Cola, Delta Airlines and CNN, and some of the nation's poorest neighborhoods. It's a hard place to get a drink on Sundays but has more strip joints per capita than almost any other city in the country. As Pico Iyer recently observed for Time magazine, the two sentences most often connected with Atlanta are "I have a dream" and "Frankly, Scarlett, I don't give a damn."

It is boastful but self-conscious about it. Referring to the Olympics, a headline this week in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution read, ". . . We'll probably pull it off."

Never at a loss for confidence was Billy Payne, the 48-year-old ACOG chairman and a former University of Georgia defensive end whose dream this became--as soon as he thought of it 10 years ago. Before that, he had never even heard of the IOC or traveled out of the country.

On his first trip to IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, to meet Samaranch, Payne and a colleague took along four mint julep cups. As they were explaining the significance of mint juleps, Samaranch interrupted.

"Can you drink Coca-Cola out of these?" he asked.

It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Let the Games, and the future, begin.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Opening Ceremonies

* Time: 5-9 p.m. PDT

* Site: Centennial Olympic Stadium,

Atlanta

* TV: Channel 4

* Themes: 100 years of Olympic history and tributes to the United States and the Deep South.

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