Amateur athletes in the United States don't have to be in Seoul to enjoy Olympic-style competition. Many states now offer their own annual multi-sport extravaganzas modeled along the same lines. This summer some 300,000 athletes partcipated in 27 such competitions, with eight more states expected to inaugurate them next year.
These multi-sport events have been especially well received in states like Indiana, Montana, Nebraska, and Oklahoma, where the focus is not so squarely on professional teams.
Even New York, however, has enjoyed tremendous success with its Empire State Games, which initiated the concept of large-scale state competitions in 1978. There were 4,900 participants at the inaugural event. Last month, 7,200 showed up in Syracuse to have their achievements chronicled by several hundred media members.
The games got little coverage within metropolitan New York City, but they received quite a bit of attention elsewhere in the state. One company produced a nightly 3-hour package of highlights that was picked up by approximately three dozen cable and independent stations.
Frederick Smith, public relations director for the Empire State Games, thinks the popularity stems from the caliber of competition. ``There's always a demand for top amateur athletics,'' he said. ``People may not be interested in the local basketball team or gymnastics club, but they are interested in the best athletes in the state.''
Each state's games are unique. Some are open to any age group, others only to high school and college-age participants. Some offer numerous sports, others just a few. Some incorporate a variety of competitive levels, others only one.
Despite these differences, the states have a common goal ``to provide a motivational tool which can be used by any athlete and any athletic programs,'' says Doug Arnot, president of the National Congress of State Games. On an individual level, the objective is similar - ``to provide [the athletes] with a higher level of participation than many of them have been able to have.''
Although state games model themselves after the Olympics by offering Olympic sports, medals, and opening ceremonies, these annual gatherings are not really designed to be stepping stones to the Olympics.
``The objectives really are local,'' Arnot says. ``We are not necessarily going to have more athletes going to the Olympics, but we will have more competing in amateur sports.''
State games are designed to encourage growth of the more traditionally amateur sports and to make competition possible outside of the schools, where funding cuts have scaled back many extracurricular programs.
These competitions, however, cannot always escape the budgetary scissors either. In Massachusetts, the Bay State Games may lose their state funding next year - but organizers are already having some success lining up corporate sponsorship. A bank paid for the jackets, T-shirts, and other paraphernalia that helped attract 11,000 participants to this year's sixth annual edition.
An example of the sort of lift these competitions can provide is seen in men's volleyball, which was practically non-existent when the Bay State Games began.
``It's given [men's volleyball] the exposure that it needs on a state basis, and the enthusiasm is remarkable,'' said Martin Avedisian, president of the New England League of Collegiate Volleyball for men. ``Already there have been a number of high school teams being brought into the fold.''
State games have also helped build networks among amateur sports clubs such as YMCAs and Boys Clubs. And efforts are being made to create a strong national headquarters. ``We're working to develop a financial, computer, telephone network that all state games can tap into,'' Arnot said.
``The future of state games can really spell the difference between opportunity and lack of opportunity,'' he added, ``and in many cases can be a strong ray of hope for many people.''