Durham, N.C. — In North Carolina, the sports world spins on a basketball axis, especially when the the state's Atlantic Coast Conference teams play. The natives enjoy a passion for golf, too. But during the just-completed US Olympic Festival they turned out to support just about every sport under the sun, as well as many held indoors. By the conclusion of the US Olympic Committee's most successful festival yet, North Carolinians proved that civic pride, curiosity, and patriotism make a powerful combination in support of this 34-sport spectacle, which brought together 3,000 athletes with Olympic aspirations. Some, such as Olympic champion diver Greg Louganis and sprinter Valerie Brisco, came looking to stay sharp in anticipation of going to the '88 Seoul games, while others, notably 12-year-old rhythmic gymnast Julia Rowell, the festival's youngest competitor, and a host of teen-age swimmers, came here with a view toward competing in 1992 the Barcelona Olympics.
Records for attendance (460,884) and ticket sales ($3 million) were set during the 14 days of competition, in which events were scattered among five mid-state communities - Durham, Raleigh, Chapel Hill, Greensboro, and Cary. This was the first time a regional concept has been used, and it worked even better than the local organizers had anticipated, with the rival constituents of Duke, North Carolina, and North Carolina State universities all jumping aboard the same bandwagon.
Hill Carrow, president and executive director of North Carolina Amateur Sports, attributed the large turnout to several factors:
Fortuitous timing. This was the last festival before the 1988 Olympics, which increased the likelihood of seeing athletes who will compete in the games. (Festivals are held only in non-Olympic years, with Oklahoma City to host the next one in 1989.)
Name association with the Olympics. Two years ago the event, then called the National Sports Festival, was renamed to more clearly identify it as a training ground and showcase for aspiring US Olympians.
State pride. Billed as the largest event in North Carolina's history, the festival became a wonderful opportunity to show off one of the fastest growing regions in the country.
An opportunity for North Carolinians to see athletic events ``a notch above what they normally see.''
The weather, which while blazing hot, didn't discourage attendance at outdoor events the way rain might have. Still, some of the best crowds congregated at the air-conditioned oases, especially the University of North Carolina's impressive Smith Center, the powder blue home of the beloved Tar Heel basketball teams.
To no one's great surprise, a festival record 20,886 attended the gold medal basketball game, which matched the South squad, led by Tar Heel star J. R. Reid, against the North. That's a lot of folks to watch a group of young players left off the US Pan American Games team, which will soon partake of a much more serious competition in Indianapolis.
Reid wasn't able to lead the South to victory, but he played like an All-American, and conducted himself like one, too, not complaining about being left off the Pan Am team and joining with former UNC soccer player April Heinrichs as a co-torch lighter for the festival.
That the Pan Am basketball squads were in training elsewhere was a reminder that the first-stringers aren't necessarily present at these festivals. In some cases this year, attendance was mandatory for athletes attempting to make Pan Am teams or, in the case of the ice hockey players, to earn invitations to the Olympic training camp.
In other cases, however, many of the best athletes compete overseas (such as in track) or stay home to train for what they consider weightier engagements.
In swimming, for example, most of the top performers were practicing for this week's US long course national championships, which will determine who swims in the summer's biggest meets, the Pan Am Games and Pan Pacific championships.
The festival swimming competition was given over to 18-and-unders without international experience. As a result, little-known Sarah Anderson, a freshman-to-be at Cal-Berkley, was able to flutter-kick her way to six gold medals, and 13-year-old Mary Petry won five medals, including four gold. As glittering as their efforts appeared, their best hopes are probably for making the 1992 Olympics,, rather than the '88 games.
The festival, therefore, is often a peek ahead, a chance to see which athletes are on the way up and how they fare in a large-scale competition.
``What this does, especially for the young person coming up,'' says Bob Condron, assistant director of public information for the US Olympic Committee, ``is give them an Olympic atmosphere. If they ever go to an Olympic event, they won't experience culture shock.''