These Games biggest, but not the best ATLANTA OLYMPICS

August 05, 1996|By Ken Rosenthal

ATLANTA -- A woman stuck her head into a souvenir stand on International Boulevard and asked, "Got any Day 9 pins?"

Vendor Mark Fahy shook his head no.

"It's gone from the country," he said, in only mild overstatement.

Day 9 was the day of the Centennial Park bombing. And of the daily commemorative pins sold and traded at the Olympics, Day 9 was perhaps the most in demand as the Games came to an end.

Vendors sold them for $25 to $40. Fahy said yesterday that collectors on the street were getting as much as $90. Another vendor said he heard a price of $100.

The bombing left two dead, 111 injured and pin collectors in a morbid frenzy.

So much for any talk that these were the greatest Games ever.

Chief organizer Billy Payne claimed he fulfilled that pledge, but International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch is from Spain, so hometown pride didn't cloud his judgment.

"Most exceptional," is as far as he would go at last night's closing ceremonies, and presumably that covered "most corporate" and "most crowded."

Whatever, the debate is as silly as the medals count.

Who cares?

Samaranch traditionally declares each successive Games the best in history, but not only did he show restraint last night, but he also used the occasion to reflect upon the two darkest moments in Olympic history.

The bombing at Centennial Park.

And the murders of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Games in Munich.

"No act of terrorism has destroyed the Olympic movement, and none ever will," Samaranch said. "More than ever, we are committed to building a better more peaceful world in which all forms of terrorism are eradicated."

Samaranch then asked for a moment of silence, giving the ceremony the proper air of solemnity and honoring a request from the families of the Munich 11 that had been ignored at the five previous Olympiads.

It's simple common sense -- any Olympics marred by a fatal bombing cannot possibly stand as the greatest ever.

And it's a typical American conceit, to think bigger is better.

The Atlanta Olympics featured a record 197 countries, 11,000 athletes and about 9 million spectators. The crowds were so huge, the attendance at the women's events alone was greater than the total attendance in Barcelona.

A democratic society thrives on such mass participation, and it was indeed amazing to see 70,000 at women's soccer, 80,000 for morning track and field preliminaries, 20,000 for an 11th-place women's basketball game between Canada and Zaire.

By that measure and others, the Games were a success. The competitions were terrific. The heat was a non-issue. And splashing children turned the five-ring fountain at Centennial Park into the happiest place on Earth.

Still, the crush of humanity created its own problems. The 50,000 volunteers were always friendly, if not always informed, but fans had to wait for transportation and for security, and the bombing only added to checkpoint delays.

All over the city, people remained upbeat, doing the wave on subway platforms at 1 a.m., treating any inconvenience as a small price for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

But everything was a battle.

These Games were highly disorganized at the start and overly commercial to the finish. The IOC had good reason to be disenchanted with Atlanta '96.

"We will not say these are the best Games ever, certainly not," said Prince Alexandre de Merode of Belgium, an IOC vice president. "The organization was better in Seoul and in Barcelona."

Why?

Because the scope wasn't as grand.

Which brings us to the flip side: The IOC knew the downside when it chose Atlanta.

You come to America, you get private officials feuding with public officials, corporations running amok, the whole unruly package.

So, it's rather amusing that these international stuffed shirts took greatest offense with the county-fair atmosphere created by the downtown vendors.

Let's get this straight:

It's OK for Coca-Cola to erect a six-story-high Coke bottle, but it's not OK for some poor slob to try to get in on the action?

The street-vendor program arose from the city of Atlanta's desire to reap part of the financial windfall, rather than see it all go to the organizing committee.

Not surprisingly, IOC officials now say that future host cities likely will need government backing as well as private financing -- a true public-private partnership -- to stage the Games.

That would seem to rule out Dallas in 2008 or any other future U.S. host, but far be it for Samaranch to bite the hand that feeds him -- for American dollars, he'll still make an exception.

"To organize the Games only with private funding can be done only in the United States," Samaranch said. "In other countries around the world, it is impossible."

The good news is, the IOC seems determined to find a better balance. Clearly, the Atlanta organizers made compromises to meet their $1.7 billion budget, resulting in what IOC officials termed a "commercial carnival."

"We need the commercialism," Samaranch said. "But commercialism must not run the Games."

That's an interesting remark from a man who sold the Olympics to NBC for $456 million, only to see the network put a jingoistic, surrealistic spin on his beloved event.

But never mind.

Commercialism extends to every corner of the Olympics, right down to pin trading. Al Falcao, a trader from North York, Ontario, expressed disgust with the demand for the Day 9 pin.

"I think it's bizarre," he said. "People have a craving for acquiring something that's unusual and memorable. But that's not a memorable occasion. It's something you need to put out of your memory."

Alas, good taste was the exception, not the rule.

The consolation?

Like so much with the Olympics, the value of the pins is an illusion.

"Come tomorrow," Falcao said, "you can buy all of them for 25 cents."

Pub Date: 8/05/96

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