Competitions can save the Games for Atlanta Following bombing, city moves cautiously to second week of events: pTC ATLANTA OLYMPICS

July 28, 1996|By KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

ATLANTA -- The moment Kerri Strug decided to attempt the final vault of the women's gymnastics team competition, despite the throbbing in her injured ankle, the Atlanta Olympic Games had its first indelible moment.

Unfortunately, that image of heroism was overtaken early yesterday morning by the grim effects of cowardice in downtown Centennial Park.

The Olympics continued, although not as carefree, not as innocent. Atlanta moved forward cautiously, knowing that only the competitions could salvage the city.

"The Games must go on," said International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch.

Through an opening week of competition in 26 sports that has been pedestrian at times and breathtaking at others, the courage of Strug's landing and the riveting necessity of holding her composure through the searing pain was the image that will remain the longest.

The Olympics are made of such stuff, and there have been other moments of individual heroism and surprising ingenuity. When a group of rowers waited in vain for an official bus to their competition, they commandeered another and redirected it to Lake Lanier.

There have been many well-publicized glitches associated with the Games. The Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games has been embarrassed by its dreadful transportation system, and IBM can't quite seem to make its computers operate properly.

"Nobody ever believes it will be as difficult at it is. They believe it now," said Dick Pound, an International Olympic Committee official who sternly directed the Atlanta organizers to fix the mess.

But ACOG and Big Blue should remember the Olympic ideal that the attempt is more important than the result. Despite logistic foul-ups that have affected a number of athletes and the huge media corps, the Games have risen above such mundane

worries, particularly for the fans who endure oppressive heat and packed crowds. And after the events of yesterday morning, the smaller inconveniences seem to pale in comparison. All that can truly revive the Olympics are more special moments like the one produced by Strug.

From an interest standpoint, the first week was dominated by gymnastics and swimming, just as the second week will give way to the track and field competition and diving. But the race for medals in all the sports had special moments and surprising results that alternately lifted or dashed the hopes of the 197 nations taking part in the Games.

U.S. boxers mostly moved steadily through their preliminary rounds, and what would the Olympics be without carping about uneven officiating?

The basketball teams kept winning, with the men's Dream Team heading lethargically toward its anticlimactic gold medal, and the women fighting hard against excellent international competition to a showdown with, probably, either Brazil or Australia.

In baseball, today's preliminary-round game between the United States and Cuba will be the big one. Cuba has been hindered by a training camp defection and the U.S. by occasionally spotty pitching that has been overcome by an offensive barrage.

Rowers from the United States have pulled their way to the final round this weekend, and three American Greco-Roman wrestlers earned silver medals.

In soccer, the women's team positioned itself for a medal with strong early play and reached the semifinals today against Brazil, but the men's team was eliminated after a respectable first round.

American athletes haven't done very well, as expected, in fencing, judo, shooting and weightlifting, just as they will probably be absent when the medals are handed out in !c badminton, table tennis and team handball.

But the Olympics are about those sort of juxtapositions, and others of a more cultural nature. When the television coverage can switch instantly from equestrian riders in their black woolen jackets to beach volleyball players in their tank tops and shorts, there is truly something for everyone.

If there was a major U.S. disappointment thus far in the Games, it was the results from the women's gymnastics team in the individual all-around competition, won by Lilia Podkopayeva of Ukraine. Dominique Dawes, Shannon Miller and Dominique Moceanu all strayed out of bounds in the floor exercise routines and finished far down the standings. The U.S. men, not quite as unexpectedly, struggled in their competition as well.

In the Olympic swimming pool, however, there was gold all around for the U.S. teams that came into the competition hoping do well, but ended up doing fantastically.

The women, who weren't expected to win a single gold medal according to world rankings, swept the three relay events and earned individual victories as well. The men were also dominant in the relays and got individual golds from Tom Dolan in the 400-meter individual medley and Jeff Rouse in the backstroke.

"We knew we were going to be better than people thought," said Amy Van Dyken, who was a surprising winner in the 100-meter butterfly. "It's kind of good to be the underdog for a change."

The most dramatic confrontations, and perhaps the best, produced silver medals for the United States, as 14-year-old Amanda Beard dueled world-record holder Penny Heyns of South Africa in the breaststroke events and 21-year-old Gary Hall Jr. came up two touches short of Russia's Alexander Popov in the freestyle sprints. Both performances boded well for the future of U.S. swimming, which sent an essentially untested team to Atlanta.

As the Atlanta Olympics chugs through its second and final week, there will probably be more moments like those produced by Strug and the U.S. swimmers. There will be wins and losses and dramatic action filed away, to be savored long after anyone remembers whether the buses were on time.

Pub Date: 7/28/96

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