US festival emerges as showcase for Olympic hopefuls

When the United States Olympic Committee rolled the first National Sports Festival out of the hangar three years ago , observers wondered if the event would really fly. The true test came this year, when the festival moved out of the USOC's cloistered playpen in Colorado Springs.

It was sort of a sports version of the Broadway show, "I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking it on the Road." Basically, the USOC did have its act together, enough so that the festival's future as a showcase for amateur athletes seems assured.

The festival is obviously growing in stature and size. It should continue to do so as the '84 Olympics draw nigh, especially since the summer games will be in Los Angeles, site of the 1983 festival. Before arriving in L.A., however, the USOC's biggest non-Olympic project will move to Indianapolis, which bid on the '82 festival just as other communities angle for the Olympic Games.

Indianapolis represents the first major city (11th largest in the country) to host the festival. Just whether bigger really is better, then, is something the USOC may find out next year, when Indianapolis intends to show off $100 million in new sports facilities.

As the festival grows it becomes more of a "must" for top athletes, some of whom have passed it up. "I think it could be the most exciting and moving thing after the Olympics. This could be the American Olympics," said gymnast Tim Daggett, winner of the horizontal bar in Syracuse.

This isn't to say the 1981 renewal didn't experience snags, mishaps, and controversy, which go with the turf, or at least seem unavoidable when some 2, 500 athletes convene for seven days to compete in 33 sports. There were problems, but none that even approached the transportation crisis that threatened to ruin last year's Lake Placid Winter Olympics.

A heavily promoted opening ceremony didn't really "deliver," boating events on Onondaga Lake were held up, East basketball coach John Thompson locked reporters out of practice, and pre-festival publicity was accused of being too little, too late, and too local.

Some critics took to calling the event the Central New York Sports Festival when early returns showed promotional efforts targeted in and around Syracuse hadn't attracted many out-of-state spectators.

The provincial approach partly grew out of budgetary considerations. "We just didn't have the bucks [for an ambitious ad campaign]," said Frank Kelley, president of the Syracuse Organizing Committee.

Be that as it may, the narrowly focused promotions succeeded in generating civic pride, which translated into brisk ticket sales for such sports as figure skating, gymnastics, basketball, and track and field. The citizenry even turned out to lend its support to athletes in the less popular spectator sports of cycling, table tennis, field hockey, etc., which are included in either the Olympics or Pan American Games.

Syracuse, a medium-sized city of some 200,000 people, the focal point of which is its university community, was tickled to be hosting the first festival "gone public." The enthusiasm showed, especially in the opening ceremony when 20 ,000 people cheered lustily for a laser light show that beamed displays on the Carrier Dome's celing.

Concern that few people outside the region knew about the festival before it happened may have been well founded. But once things got going, the nation quickly became aware of NSF III's existence through radio, TV, and newspaper reports. With big league baseball prematurely in mothballs, and with a site more easily accessible to the major Eastern news centers, reporters turned out in force from around the country, a switch from previous years.

Mike Moran, the USOC's media coordinator, said these two factors resulted in tremendous exposure. "We've been identified," he said, indicating that credentials might be assigned on an Olympic-style priority basis in the future.

To beef up this year's track and field competition, the USOC arranged to fly in more than a dozen American performers from Europe, where the summer circuit and World University Games have lured them. One of the best-known of these athletes, world record holding 400-meter sprinter Edwin Moses, was scheduled to return, but rather mysteriously changed his mind at the last minute.

His absence really didn't really detract from the competition, which was highlighted by a duel in the 110-meter high hurdles between Renaldo Nehemiah and his chief rival, Greg Foster. Nehemiah won in 13.10 seconds, equalling his world record, though unofficially because of a following wind.

The two most unexpected participants in the entire festival were shot putter Brian Oldfield, who won his event, and pole vaulter Steve Smith. Former pros, they had to go to court to be permitted to compete.

Though their efforts caused something of a flap, USOC festival organizer Baaron Pittenger found a silver lining. Speaking of the lawsuit brought against the USOC, he said, "It proves we are growing when world-class athletes are suing to get in."

Still, the ranks in certain sports were thinned for one reason or another, leaving the door open for some fresh new faces to emerge. For example, Beth Pope won the all-around women's gymnastics title, Brian Meeker the men's; Rosalynn Sumners took the women's figure-skating crown, and Mary Wayte and Bill Barrett collected three swimming medals apiece.

In some cases, athletes expected to finish on top couldn't hold off challenges from inspired competitors. Greg Louganis, one of the finest divers the US has ever produced, was upset in the three-meter springboard by Dave Burgering, while in rhythmic gymnastics, a sport added to the Olympics for '84, Lydia Crabtree ended the reign of six- time national champion Sue Soffe.

In the case of Louganis, the letdown probably occurred because of the difficulty in staying sharp, both mentally and physically, with the Olympics three years away. He would have been a favorite to bring home a gold at the 1980 Moscow games, but the US boycott put his dreams, along with those of many other athletes, on hold.

Though not always able to maintain high performance standards in the festivals, world-caliber performers at least view participation in them as another means of tiding them over to the next Olympics. The festivals also are important in providing less-experienced athletes the opportunity to rub shoulders with those at the pinnacle of their sports, according to Pittenger. "Our younger people will go away more motivated to be world class themselves," he said. "They'll learn something from this experience, and they'll understand a little better what's needed from them."

US basketball officials really emphasized giving younger athletes a chance, choosing no one beyond the college freshman level to compete at Syracuse. The talent on hand, therefore, was young and loaded with potential. Pat Ewing, a seven-footer headed for Georgetown University, grabbed a lot of attention early in the festival with his slam dunks, shot blocking, and avoidance of interviews. Ewing may have been the most heralded big man displaying his wares in Manley Fieldhouse, but there were three other seven-footers to gawk at, including UCLA's Stuart Gray, who led the West squad to the team title and won tournament MVP honors.

The women's rosters were just as star-studded. Linda Page, a Philadelphia schoolgirl who scored 100 points in a single game last season, and Cheryl Miller , a Californian with an ability to dunk the ball, were the big attractions. The star, ironically, turned out to be Medina Dixon, who led her East team to victory, yet spent her high school career in Ewing's shadow in Cambridge, Mass.

A real treat for many spectators was the chance to discover sports they seldom ever see, such as women's fastpitch softball, synchronized swimming, canoeing, judo, and the like.

All in all, NSF II proved to be a comforting affirmation that the US Olympic movement is alive and well and moving confidently toward 1984.

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