Most Athletes Have Only This Season in Atlanta : Olympics: Games offer most just one shot at glory.


The athletes, most of them, anyway, always try to make the Olympics right. Even though the whole thing goes more wrong every time. That is why so many people start to think we are talking about the Visa Olympics here, or the Coca-Cola Olympics or the NBC Olympics.

Somehow, the rights fees and the sponsorship and the coverage get more play than the games themselves. It is a way to make the Olympics no better than the rest of sports. We are conditioned to believe now that everything is for sale, including gold medals, and silver and bronze.

More and more, the sideshow of the Olympics has become as important as the show itself.

And yet in Atlanta, where the running and jumping and all the rest of it has begun, the romance of; the Olympics, the beauty of the! Olympics, is still about the ones who have trained a lifetime for these two weeks, for this summer, for this stage. For this season of their lives. The greatest drama of all is about the ones who have never been to the Olympics before and will never be back. It can never be about Shaquille O'Neal, that famous Olympian, and his money.

The reason the Olympics are different is this: For most of these athletes, the ones who have traded their youth for this shot at medals, there is no next season. There is just this season in Atlanta. The rest of it doesn't matter, no matter what the sponsors are paying for commercial time, no matter what kind of job NBC does from the beginning of the "Today" show until the windbags stop talking at the end of the late-night show. No one will care or remember whether the opening ceremonies you watch tonight are gaudier or flashier than the ones from Barcelona, or Seoul before that or Los Angeles, with all those pianos playing "Rhapsody in Blue," in 1984.

A month from now, no one will remember that a little International Olympics Committee dictator named Juan Antonio Samaranch was on television the other day saying the Olympic movement was bigger than the Catholic Church.

Samaranch doesn't matter. From now on, every day and night at the Olympics, will be about kids like Kim Zmeskal.

Zmeskal, if you remember, was a star gymnast from the United States at the Barcelona Olympics of 1992. She was going to be the Mary Lou Retton of Barcelona. She was 16 and came out of Bela Karolyi's Houston gym for girls just like her. She had gone into the gym when she was 6, sure that there would be a gold medal as a payoff someday, on the other side of the rainbow, and what had passed for her childhood. Even though her childhood, in Karolyi's gym, sometimes had the charm of a sweatshop.

But on her third run across the Original Reuther floor mat in a place called Paulau Sant Jordi in Barcelona, Zmeskal landed wrong in the corner. It was really her first step out of those Olympics, a sudden and terrible wrong turn out of her own dreams.

She would only lose a 10th of a point for landing wrong, on a night when she finished 10th in the women's gymnastics competition. If she had landed perfectly on that third run, Zmeskal would only have moved up to eighth. But you could see she was gone after she made that landing, had gone completely off her game. If you knew nothing about gymnastics, it still was plain enough to see that at Paulau Sant Jordi. Ten years she had trained for the night. When she was 8, she watched Retton become the darling of the world in Los Angeles.

Retton scored a "10" on the night she had waited for her whole life. Zmeskal finished 10th.

There was no Olympics the next month, or even the next year. This was no road trip in baseball, or the NBA. Zmeskal wasn't going to bounce back from a bad game with a real good game. This was her chance. There was no guaranteed contract on which she could fall back. Just this night.

"It wasn't the best night of my life," she said that night in Barcelona.

Later that night, they gave out medals for the women's all-around competition. Zmeskal was part of a U.S. team that got a bronze medal. That was Kim Zmeskal's parting gift from the Olympics. She had come to Barcelona as the world champion in women's gymnastics.

It happens like this around the clock, every four years.

When the medals had been awarded and Zmeskal had finished talking about what had been the best night of her life, there was no way of telling which footprint, in chalk, belonged to Zmeskal. The mat was red and there were a lot of tiny white footprints, heartbreakingly small, the size of your hand, outside the lines. One of them was Zmeskal's, I knew that.

Some come back. Carl Lewis comes back again and again, chasing more gold medals, and Janet Evans comes back looking to end up with more Olympic medals than the great speed skater Bonnie Blair. Some of the Dream Teamers come back and next time, in Australia in 2000, there will be more basketball zillionaires ready to show everybody in the world who's boss, and sell overpriced jerseys to children.

But the ones who matter are the ones whose names you don't know this morning.

For a night or two, they will be the most famous athletes in the world. Whether they win, or lose. No next season for them. No guaranteed contracts. No second chances. Their dreams are the only thing not for sale in Atlanta.

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