American dominance seems a thing of past More even competition is key to these Games

July 20, 1996|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- They were the Olympic Games of Mary Lou Retton and Carl Lewis, of Michael Jordan and Cheryl Miller. They were the Olympics of Peter Ueberroth's savvy and Francis Scott Key's song. They were the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, and America dominated.

The United States won 174 medals, nearly half of them gold. But many considered it a hollow victory, since a Soviet-led boycott had wiped out most of the legitimate competition. And it was, in retrospect, the end of an era of American domination. The next two Olympics, in Seoul and Barcelona, were busts for a country used to winning.

"In '92, Summer Sanders got a silver medal and everyone asked her what was wrong," fellow swimmer Amy Van Dyken said earlier this week. "In this country, a lot of people feel that if you win a silver or a bronze medal in the Olympics, you haven't won anything at all."

When the competition in the 1996 Olympic Games begins here '' today, the United States enters a new era: the age of Olympic parity. For many teams and their members, they are starting from the bottom up. While there are still many dominant U.S. teams -- from the men's and women's basketball teams to the women's volleyball and softball teams -- there are just as many underdogs.

Some, such as the men's gymnastics team, are considered a long shot to get any overall or individual medals. Others, such as the boxing team, have a few bright stars but little depth. And a few, such as the women's swimming team, have to hope that either their older stars can recapture the magic of their Olympic ancestors or their younger members can swim faster than they ever have.

"It's a much better team here than in Japan," said first-year Olympic men's gymnastics coach Peter Kormann, alluding to a team that finished ninth overall last fall in the World Championships. "It's very important that our veterans have upped their routines a notch."

Said boxing coach Al Mitchell: "Everyone on this team has a chance for a medal. Everyone knows that the most important thing in the Olympics is the draw. If we get a good draw, I think we'll surprise a lot of people."

All three teams are coming off major disappointment in Spain, where the Cubans continued their recent domination in boxing and the Americans took home a scant three medals, including one gold; where Vitaly Scherbo put on a Jordanesque performance in men's gymnastics by taking six gold medals; where the women's swimming team, billed as "Smoke On The Water", fizzled amid much internal conflict.

It is likely not to change here.

The Cubans, despite the recent defection of two team members, are still expected to rule the boxing competition at Georgia Tech's Alexander Memorial Coliseum. Scherbo, putting off his retirement following the near-fatal car accident of his wife, is still being picked to be lord of the still rings (as well as every other apparatus) at the Georgia Dome. And the U.S. women swimmers have not only the Chinese to worry about, but the Australians who beat them in the same pool at Georgia Tech's Aquatics Center in last summer's Pan Pacific Championships.

"This is the Cinderella team of the U.S. Olympic team," said boxer Antonio Tarver, a two-time world champion and, along with superheavyweight Lawrence Clay-Bey, the only American considered a serious threat to win a gold medal. "Unfortunately, you'll have to read about it because you probably won't be able to watch it."

If NBC thinks boxing is too gory a sport to watch, consider men's gymnastics. At the Olympic Trials in last month in Boston, it seemed as if another event was added to the competition: pratfalls. There were no fewer than 15 in the optionals, and every one of the 14 gymnasts there had at least one. Jair Lynch of Washington fell on his face twice from the high bar and still made the team.

What compounds the problem for many of these teams is the added pressure of performing at home. As much as the home-court advantage could help these underdogs as it does in other settings, the raised expectations of the typical American sports fan here for the Games could become another obstacle. Most Olympic fans are unfamiliar with the teams they're watching, but quite familiar with the mind-set that was prevalent in Los Angeles.

"Most fans remember what American swimming was like in the '60s and '70s," said Tom Dolan, considered by many to be the star of the U.S. team. "But the rest of the world has caught up. There's a lot of depth in swimming."

The same is true in track and field, another sport the U.S. dominated through 1984. While both the U.S. men and women are expected to do well when the competition begins a week into the 16-day event, the biggest question will be whether the heat might take a toll on a team with a definite thirtysomething flavor.

"I think we're capable of winning a lot of gold," said Michael Johnson, the favorite to become the first male in Olympic history to win both the 200 meters and 400 meters. "But there are a lot of great athletes around the world."

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