The '96 Games: many hits, a few misses

'Have a blessed day." Such a freshly worded, heartfelt greeting by an Olympic bus driver was the stuff of Southern hospitality, the glue of the Centennial Games, which had their shaky moments.

Anyone who had been in magical, Old World Barcelona four years ago knew that Atlanta had a tough act to follow. Those had been special days on Montjuic, and now the South's fast-growing but callow business capital was being put to the test. The assignment: Host an Olympic celebration for the ages.

Were these the best Games ever, as Billy Payne, the ever-confident president of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, had supposedly promised? Probably not, but that is not really the point in either competing or hosting the Games. "The important thing," as the longer of the two Olympic mottoes expresses it "... is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle."

Atlanta's Games, which began with a "Gone With the Wind"-length Opening Ceremony, weathered various organizational shortcomings, criticism for perceived overcommercialization, and a Centennial Olympic Park bomb explosion. The community drew on its rich reservoir of faith to see it through 16 days of athletic competition filled with superlative efforts and spectacular crowds.

Record attendance figures were perhaps the greatest hallmark of these Games. Almost 80,000 people paid just to watch the gymnasts practice. Ushers sat in lifeguard stands with megaphones to direct the ticket-holding throngs outside the Georgia World Congress Center. And in the heart of Southern college football country, more than 1.2 million spectators clicked the turnstiles for men's and women's soccer.

To some, it seemed that Americans were too fixated on their own athletes. The double victory by Michael Johnson in the 200- and 400-meter runs, for example, was the focus of intense media attention, yet Marie-Jose Perec, or la Gazelle as she's called in France, quietly accomplished the very same "double" as Johnson with none of the same fanfare - at least in the US.

It is not unusual for the host country to go a bit bananas for its own athletes. This happens at every Olympics. What may have made it more apparent on this occasion was simply that the US, an athletic superpower that produces lots to cheer about, has a huge press corps and the best-oiled Olympic publicity machine in the world.

But while Johnson, decathlon champion Dan O'Brien, and long-jump winner Carl Lewis were placed on NBC's TV pedestal along with a host of other medal winners, in the Olympic venues themselves Americans were properly respectful and appreciative when it came time to support the accomplishments of athletes of other nationalities.

As US diving coach Ron O'Brien put it when acknowledging the brilliance of Chinese diver Fu Mingxia, "No matter where they're from, it's always exciting to see excellence."

The best performances may have been obscured by the star-spangled euphoria, yet they were numerous. British rower Steven Redgrave won a gold medal in his fourth consecutive Olympics; Canadian sprinter Donovan Bailey set a world record in the 100-meter dash; Russian Aleksandr Popov became the first male swimmer to win both the 50- and 100-meter freestyle races in consecutive Games.

Turkish weightlifter Naim Suleymanoglu became a three-time Olympic champion with a world record; Russian Greco-Roman wrestler Aleksandr Karelin extended a nine-year winning streak; Denmark's Poul-Erik Hoyer-Larsen prevented an Asian sweep of the badminton medals; Russia's Svetlana Masterkova scored a double victory in track's 800- and 1,500-meter races; men's 800-meter winner Vebjoern Rodal became Norway's first track and field gold medalist in 40 years; and Ioannis Melissanidis won the men's floor exercise for Greece's first gymnastics medal since the modern Games.

And the beat only begins there, with a procession of Olympic, regional, national, and personal records rolling on like the credits to an epic motion picture. The following list may help to fill out more of the picture.

Most stunning performance: Michael Johnson's 400-200 double, in which he won prelim races while braking, then jetted to sizable winning margins in the finals. His 19.32-second time in the 200 shattered his own world record so completely that it startled a sport accustomed to minuscule advances.

Best lifetime achievement: Carl Lewis's long-jump victory gave him nine gold medals in four Olympics, tying him with the all-time Olympic leaders in that category: Finnish runner Paavo Nurmi, Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina, and American swimmer Mark Spitz. Much was made of the possibility of adding Lewis to the US men's 4x100 relay, giving him a opportunity to grab a record-breaking 10th gold. He didn't run and the Americans finished second.

Greatest power surge: The Olympic baseball tournament produced 133 home runs in 32 games, including 11 in the championship game, eight by the victorious Cubans, and three by Japan. On three occasions, sluggers reached the Fulton County Stadium's upper deck, where the dingers of few major leaguers have ever gone before.

Most overblown controversy: The stir caused by the use of chrome-plated pickup trucks in the opening ceremony. Some thought this a subtle acknowledgment of Southern rednecks, while others fretted that General Motors was sneaking in a commercial plug.

Most heart-wrenching finish: Eduard Zenovka's second-place in the modern pentathlon, the five-event competition that was compressed into a single day to make it more compelling and perhaps keep it on the Olympic program. After contests in shooting, fencing, swimming, and horseback riding, Zenovka and Kazakhstan's Aleksandr Parygin battled neck-and-neck in the concluding 2.5-mile run. Only yards from the finish and the gold medal, Zenovka fell. By the time he recovered, Parygin passed him for the victory.

Most peculiar victory: American hurdler Allen Johnson won the 110-meter with an Olympic-record time, but knocked over virtually every hurdle.

Funkiest technique: The two-handed set shot used by Aki Ichijo, a member of Japan's women's basketball team, proved that results matter more than style. She shot the ball nearly to the ceiling, with one leg kicking up behind her, but the ball regularly found its target. She hit four of nine three-pointers during a loss to the United States.

Most flawless performance: Nine of 10 judges gave the American synchronized swimming team perfect technical and artistic marks for a free program that accounted for 65 percent of the overall score.

Most stunning victory: Australia's 2-1, 10-inning upset of the US in women's softball. It was only the second international loss for the Americans in more than 100 games. Despite the loss, the US stayed in the medal hunt and eventually won the gold.

Toughest post-Olympic challenge: To keep Centennial Olympic Park a vital, public space. Millions have swarmed it during the Games, yet without a lot of attention this resource could easily be underutilized afterward.

Most premature celebration: Italian water polo reserves, still wearing their robes, jumped into the pool to celebrate an apparent victory with two-tenths of a second left, drawing a penalty, which gave Hungary the opportunity to tie the game with a penalty shot. Italy eventually won 20-18.

Biggest individual surprise: Irish swimmer Michelle Smith, who won three golds and a bronze despite being a virtual unknown until these Olympics.

Most inspirational Atlanta visitor: Slovenian Leon Stukelj, a gymnastics gold medalist at the 1924 Games, who stepped spryly during the Opening Ceremony.

Most disappointing sport: tennis. While other competitions attracted record crowds, seats went unoccupied at the Stone Mountain Tennis Center.

Best friendship: American tennis teammates Lindsay Davenport and Mary Joe Fernandez. Davenport lobbied for Fernandez, who was originally left off the US team, to be included, then was genuinely saddened when she played and beat Fernandez in a semifinal match.

"I was playing someone I don't want to see lose, who I don't want to see play badly," said Davenport.

Best comebacks: American diver Mark Lenzi, who let his life go to wrack and ruin after winning gold in '92, got back into diving shape and won a bronze. Mary Ellen Clark, a US teammate, overcame a yearlong challenge with dizziness to return to the platform and win her second consecutive bronze medal.

Most overpublicized athlete: US gymnast Dominique Moceanu, winner of no individual medals.

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