Atlanta throwing a world party Olympics: History's largest peacetime gathering of nations convenes tonight for opening ceremonies.

July 19, 1996|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- Athens wanted it. Atlanta grabbed it. And corporate America bought into it.

These are the Centennial Summer Olympics, the grandest, gaudiest sporting spectacle ever devised.

Tonight, in a stadium built on the edge of an interstate highway, history's largest peacetime gathering of nations will convene in opening ceremonies that include cheerleaders, gospel singers and pickup trucks.

Olympic organizers say they're prepared to deal with most any emergency, and more than ready to throw a party for the world over the next 17 days.

Six years and $1.7 billion in the making, Atlanta's Games bring together more than 10,500 athletes from as many as 197 nations. These are likely to be Games of grace and gridlock, courage and commercialism, as the first modern Olympic century is celebrated in the American South and officially opened by President Bill Clinton.

When the International Olympic Committee bypassed the spiritual home of the modern Games, Athens, and awarded the Games to Atlanta, it sent out a message that it was going for the ultimate gold medal -- corporate cash.

Atlanta is now awash in corporate logos and corporate pavilions, some of which are actually grander than the Olympic venues. This is the first Olympic city in history to build a new park for the event -- and then turn it into a strip mall filled with corporate tents.

For all the money spent, there appear to be some holes left in Atlanta's plan. The city could be short on buses and the subway system overtaxed.

There has also been plenty of grumbling among local citizens whose lives have been disrupted for the past few years as Atlanta prepared for the Games.

"We don't mind watching the Games, we just don't want to live in the middle of the Games," said Doris Bohannon, whose front porch lies hard by the Olympic Stadium.

The traditional Olympic parade, opened by Greece and closed by the host United States, has been swelled by 26 newly `D recognized delegations.

The gigantic scope of the Games has also embraced women as never before, with more female events and competitors. Women will now be going for golds in softball, soccer and the 5,000 meters in track. They'll be joining men in the new Olympic sports of mountain biking and beach volleyball, events added to entice even greater television viewership.

A teen-aged tumbler from Ukraine named Lilia Podkopayeva will try to fly for a gold. Gwen Torrence, Atlanta's feisty hometown heroine, aims to become the fastest woman on earth in the 100. And basketball's new Dream Team, the American women, will try to upend China.

For long-running drama, though, nothing may beat American Michael Johnson's quest for double gold in the 200 and 400.

The story of athletic redemption could be played out by decathlete Dan O'Brien, who failed to qualify for the Olympics four years ago.

There will also be farewells for American track stars Carl Lewis and Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Ukrainian pole vaulter Sergei Bubka, and Belarus gymnast Vitali Scherbo, Olympic legends searching for final triumphs.

A couple of American veterans will also be placed on center stage during tonight's opening ceremonies, which will pay tribute to the Olympic Centennial that stretches back to the beginning of the modern Games, in Athens in 1896.

Basketball maestro Teresa Edwards, an Atlanta native and three-time Olympian who celebrates her 32nd birthday today, will take the Olympic oath on behalf of all the athletes as a symbolic gesture of sportsmanship.

Superheavyweight wrestler Bruce Baumgartner, winner of the 1995 Sullivan Award as America's top amateur athlete, will be the flag bearer for the U.S. delegation of 890 athletes and officials.

For Atlanta, the opening ceremonies may be the most important component of the Games. Local organizing officials were clearly overwhelmed four years ago when the 1992 Games of Barcelona, Spain, opened with opera stars and flamenco dancers.

Here, the South will be celebrated with marching bands, dancers and extracts of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech. There will also be the dance of pickup trucks.

"The trucks are the vehicles for light," said John MacAloon, an Olympic scholar and anthropologist. "If you've grown up in the South, you know the most important form of celebration is the homecoming or the reunion. The pickup truck and cars were pulled in a circle and the lights were turned on to make a space for singing, dancing, conversation."

The one moment American athletes say they are waiting for is when they will march into an American stadium in front of an American crowd.

"Being in a home country is awesome," said Paula Weishoff, a volleyball player who appeared in the 1984 Los Angeles Games. "Everybody is going nuts. They are all for us and they speak our language. I have told the younger players it will be the most incredible thing that ever happened to you."

Pub Date: 7/19/96

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