BARCELONA, Spain -- They will be led by a 39-year-old marathon runner whose Olympic career began when Richard Nixon was in the White House, Carl Lewis was in grade school and Franco was still alive.
There will be a 7-foot-1 professional basketball player and a 367-pound weightlifter, a 54-year-old shooter and a 14-year-old gymnast.
The Americans will take their place in the parade of more than 10,000 athletes from 172 nations during today's opening ceremonies of the 1992 Summer Olympics.
History's biggest, most dramatic Games of the modern era will begin at dusk in a stadium atop a hill overlooking a hot, windy city hard by the Mediterranean Sea.
The three-hour ceremony will include the dance of the Sardana, the playing of the Catalan national anthem, the unfurling of a football-field sized five-ringed Olympic flag, and the ignition of a caldron by a flaming arrow shot by a paraplegic archer.
The event is so big that Pope John Paul II is sending greetings, and the secretary general of the United Nations is asking for an appeal for peace in war-ravaged Yugoslavia.
Fidel Castro, Nelson Mandela and King Juan Carlos of Spain will be here. So, too, will be thousands of soldiers, standing guard against terrorism in a country where Basque separatists have engaged in a violent 23-year campaign for independence.
But when the music stops and the speeches end, the contests from archery to yachting will begin.
And for only the second time since 1968, the 610-member U.S. team could lead the medal tables at the Olympics.
The dismantling of the East German sports machine, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the dispersal of power in sports ranging from boxing to track and field, have left an opening for the Americans, who were last atop the medal standings in the boycott-diminished 1984 Los Angeles Games.
There is more to the Olympics than one medal won by a bunch of NBA pros.
Francie Larrieu Smith, a five-time Olympian whose career began in 1972 in Munich and continues with a steep climb on the marathon course in Barcelona, will emerge as the first symbol of the American team when she carries the flag in the opening ceremony. These are Games in which American women, from swimming to gymnastics to track and field, could dominate.
"I'm not a superstar," Larrieu Smith said. "I've hung around. I've set some records. But I've never won a medal."
Larrieu Smith will be leading a parade of athletes whose average age is 26.86 years. Basketball player David Robinson from the Naval Academy and the San Antonio Spurs is the tallest at 7-1, weightlifter Mark Henry the heaviest at 367 pounds, shooter Darius Young the oldest at 54 and gymnast Kerri Strug the youngest at 14.
There will be plenty of American medalists in Barcelona.
The women's swim team could be the best in history, led by 16-year-old Anita Nall of Towson, Md., the world-record holder in the 200-meter breaststroke, Jenny Thompson, the 100 freestyle world-record holder, returning triple gold medalist Janet Evans and five-race threat Summer Sanders.
The men aren't too bad, either, with world-record holder Mike Barrowman, of Potomac, Md., (200 breaststroke), American-record holder Melvin Stewart (200 butterfly) and Matt Biondi, a five-time gold medalist at the 1988 Seoul, South Korea Games.
In track and field, the once-time king of the sprints, Carl Lewis will compete in only one event, the long jump. World-record holders Butch Reynolds, Randy Barnes, Edwin Moses, Florence Griffith Joyner and Roger Kingdom won't be here at all.
Even so, the Americans are strong.
2 "We may have the best team ever," said U.S. men's coach Mel Rosen.
In the 100, there is Dennis Mitchell, Leroy Burrell and Mark Witherspoon. In the 200, Michael Johnson is all but unbeatable. And in the
400, Danny Everett, Steve Lewis and Quincy Watts will try for a sweep.
In the long jump, Lewis will go world-record holder Mike Powell.
Sprinter Gwen Torrence is favored in the women's 100 and 200. Jamaican-born, U.S.-citizen Sandra Farmer-Patrick is favored in the 400 hurdles.
Kim Zmeskal and Shannon Miller could square off for gold in the women's all-around in gymnastics, while leading the Americans to a team silver.
Medals could be won by America's volleyball teams, the water polo team, the baseball team, and, of course, the Dream Team, the overwhelming favorite to devastate all comers in basketball.
U.S. boxers could win as many as four golds, led by flyweight Eric Griffin and lightweight Oscar De La Hoya. Archers Denise Parker and Jay Barrs will aim for medals, too.
L Even a modern pentathlete, Mike Gostigian, could win a gold.
Just in time, too.
"The way our sport is going, we'll be out by the time Atlanta comes in 1996," he said. "People will miss us when we're gone."
For now, though, modern pentathlon is one of 28 sports to be savored. The Olympics have discovered an enchanted place on a hilltop in Spain.