Golden games ahead for US?
Los Angeles — The soup du jour for the 15 days of Olympic competition that began Sunday is a hearty bowl of American winners with plenty of foreign seasoning. ''I hate to dwell on things like medal counts,'' says F. Don Miller, the United States Olympic Committee executive director. ''But I think that our team could surpass the total of 195 medals won by the Soviet Union in Moscow in 1980, which included 80 gold medals.''
The Los Angeles Games undoubtedly will be a tremendous showcase for the host country's athletes, including such acclaimed stars as sprinter/long jumper Carl Lewis, gymnast Mary Lou Retton, swimmer Tracy Caulkins, diver Greg Louganis, and basketball player Michael Jordan, to name just a few.
Uncle Sam's dominance will be partly the result of the 14-nation East-bloc boycott, led by the powerful Soviets and East Germans. But the impact of these AWOL nations, while significant, should not obscure the fact that Americans have come primed as never before, and would have harvested plenty of gold under any circumstances.
The US Olympic Committee, with corporate assistance, has spent millions to upgrade the national athletic effort. This surely has enhanced American chances in these games, as has the ''home-field advantage.''
It's been a foregone conclusion for quite some time, then, that the L.A. Olympics would make for a popular summer rerun of ''The US Mounts the Victory Stand.'' In no way, however, will the next two weeks simply be a National Sports Festival in Olympic clothing.
Consider the fact that the athletes competing here represent a record 139 foreign countries - including some with communist governments, such as China, Yugoslavia, and Romania. And although many smaller nations only dream of winning medals, their mere presence adds immensely to the character and spirit of the proceedings.
Beyond this, though, several of these visiting nations - both large and small - boast potential individual stars of these games.
Great Britain, for example, has sent two of the greatest names in middle-distance running in 1980 gold-medal winners Sebastian Coe (1,500 meters) and Steve Ovett (800 meters); reigning Olympic and world decathlon champion Daley Thompson; and Zola Budd, the highly acclaimed barefoot runner from South Africa who has only recently become an English citizen. West Germany sends its own candidate for ''world's greatest athlete'' in decathlete Jurgen Hingsen, plus world-record-holding swimmer Michael Gross.
Neighboring Canada will also make a splash at the pool with Alex Baumann and Victor Davis. Norway's Grete Waitz should be in the hunt for a marathon gold, while Romanian gymnasts Ecaterina Szabo and Lavinia Agache try to follow in the magnificent footsteps of countrywoman Nadia Comaneci.
Then, too, there is China, which is making its first appearance in the Summer Olympics since 1948. The Chinese, who have never yet won a gold medal in any event, have sent a full complement of 225 athletes to these games in a bid to take their place in the world's sporting community. They have some strong medal contenders, too, including the globe's top high jumper in willowy Zhu Jianhua and a superior all-around gymnast in Li Ning.
Altogether a record 7,800 athletes will take to the various arenas and playing fields throughout the area.
The strategy has been to use existing facilities whenever feasible, even in the case of soccer, which is surely the most widely scattered competition in Olympic history, with preliminary games as far away as Annapolis, Md., and Cambridge, Mass. (Soccer is always fairly well spread out, however, as in 1980, when preliminary matches were held in Leningrad, Kiev, and Minsk, as well as in Moscow.)
Locally, the most distant competition is the canoeing and rowing at Lake Casitas, some 80 miles north of Los Angeles. To cut down on commuting, the athletes in these sports have their own Olympic village in Santa Barbara, a much smaller version of the two main villages at the University of Southern California and the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA).
The '84 games are not only massive in a geographical sense, but they are also the biggest and most diverse athletic spectacle ever assembled.
Part of the reason is the necessity to add more and more women's events. Thirteen were added to the schedule here.
The first to take its bow was Sunday's 79-kilometer cycling road race, which marked the women's debut in Olympic pedaling. America's Connie Carpenter-Phinney and teammate Rebecca Twigg captured the gold and silver medals respectively.
Women now have their own shooting events, too, plus an additional canoe and swimming race, and several new entries to the running schedule, including the 3, 000 meters and marathon. Feeling that Olympic authorities were still moving too slowly, however, an international women's running group brought an unsuccessful lawsuit that sought to further expand the slate of L.A. distance events to include 5,000- and 10,000-meter races similar to those on the men's program.
Two brand-new sports, synchronized swimming and rhythmic gymnastics, are marked ''for women only.'' They are a delight to the eye and should be instant hits with spectators.
Synchronized swimming, an outgrowth of the old Esther Williams aquacades, sold out quickly, due largely to the attention Americans Tracy Ruiz and Candy Costie have brought to their sport.
Rhythmic gymnastics, which incorporates elements of ballet and circuslike dexterity, is equally entertaining. Unfortunately, however, the strong Bulgarian team will be missing when the competition starts in the latter part of the games.
Baseball and tennis have also been inserted in the L.A. lineup, and although they are classified only as demonstration sports this year, keen interest is anticipated in these competitions, which are popular in the host country and which hope to eventually gain full-fledged Olympic status.
Tennis is utilizing the most liberal eligibility standards at the games, restricting participation to 20-and-unders, whether amateur or professional. As a result, American pros such as Jimmy Arias and Andrea Jaeger are among the favorites at UCLA's new tennis complex.
Creeping professionalism is evident elsewhere, too. In soccer, for instance, North American Soccer League players are eligible to compete so long as they haven't appeared in World Cup matches for European or South American teams.
The epitome of the double standard probably exists in track and field, where shotputter Brian Oldfield was barred here for his modest earnings on a now defunct pro circuit, while such nouveau-riche US athletes as Carl Lewis, Mary Decker, and Edwin Moses, await the starter's gun. The trick is to work within trust fund definition guidelines established by the International Amateur Athletic Federation.
Track ranks as one of the glamour events of the Olympics, and the aforementioned athletes are destined for special attention as the sport unfolds before huge crowds in the Los Angeles Coliseum.
Lewis attempts to repeat Jesse Owens's feat of winning four gold medals with victories in the 100- and 200-meter sprints, the long jump, and the 4 x 100 relay.
Decker, the world champion in the 1,500 and 3,000, has elected to run only the latter event in the Olympics, where she'll do battle with Budd in what could be a highlight of the entire games.
Moses seeks to extend his phenomenal streak of 102 consecutive victories in the 400-meter hurdles, which he won at Montreal in 1976. The last man to beat him, West Germany's Harald Schmid (who did it back in 1977), is competing here.
An interesting confrontation is anticipated in the women's marathon as well, with Maine's Joan Benoit, the world-record holder, matching strides with Norway's 1-2 punch of Grete Waitz and Ingrid Kristiansen.
Head-to-head rivalries will undoubtedly lend drama to lesser-watched sports, too, such as archery, where picking between American bowmen Darrell Pace and Rick McKinney is a hair-splitting exercise.
Many unsung athletes see the Olympics as a rare chance to capture the international spotlight. And given the extensive television coverage, overachievers in sports such as judo, wrestling, fencing, yachting, modern pentathlon, rowing, and the equestrian disciplines will be striving extra hard to seize this golden opportunity.
Team sports, of course, shouldn't be forgotten in assessing the Olympic picture, either.
Potentially the most dominating unit of the games could be the US men's basketball team. Since basketball was introduced to the Olympics in 1936, the American men have lost only one game, and that on a highly controversial play to the Soviets in 1972, and this year's team looks to be one of the all-time greats.
''For two weeks, I want to make this the best basketball team in the world - bar none,'' fiery coach Bobby Knight has said of his tremendously talented charges.
The women's team, led by Cheryl Miller, has been almost as impressive, and also will be favored to win the gold.
The US has also honed its water-polo team and men's and women's volleyball teams to razor sharpness. And since the host country automatically qualifies teams in every sport, there's always the possibility of a Lake Placid-style hockey surprise where it's least expected - in team handball or men's field hockey.
But flag-waving Americans shouldn't start counting the medals before they hatch, because lots of foreign athletes have designs on the exact same rewards.
The US could generate a good head of steam in the first week, though, drawing inspiration from a medal-hungry swimming team. Coach Don Gambril says: ''Other countries should be thinking they have to fnish somewhere other than first.''