L.A. Olympics seen as too long, too commercial, and too one-sided

I have a confession to make. I never did get wholly into the 1984 Olympics. Sorry about that, Peter Ueberroth. The Games were simply too big, too spread out , too long, and yes, too commercial. I thought the half million dollars or so spent on fireworks for the opening and closing ceremonies was excessive and should have gone to buy food for people who don't have any.

Every time I paid $10 to park at the press center, I mentally cringed, even though this was an expense account item. I know one visiting reporter whose office spent $2,700 so he could sleep 17 nights in a demitasse hotel room where the doorknob got in bed with him.

As a writer, I would like to have been allowed on the Coliseum floor two hours before the start of competition to talk with people like Carl Lewis, Daley Thompson, and Mary Decker. I'm used to being able to do this during the baseball season - even at the World Series.

The mass interview session, where athletes are herded into a room the size of Rhode Island, sit at a head table, and take questions seldom produces much of note. While that approach may be necessary during something as big as an Olympics, it doesn't even rate a bronze medal compared with the one-on-one interview.

Often the questions had nothing to do with the Games - as when one reporter asked US women basketball players to comment on Geraldine Ferraro and if they had any aspirations as future presidential candidates.

Like almost everyone else, I got caught up in the opening and closing ceremonies, which were really an extremely well done Hollywood extravaganza. I even got a kick out of the part where our pioneers traveled West to East across the United States in their covered wagons. And it was great when all those Olympic kids became friends together on the floor of the Coliseum.

Probably because I was 68 rows up, I didn't feel the emotional pull of spectators whose seats rimmed the track when Gina Hemphill, Jesse Owens's granddaughter, carried the Olympic flame into the Coliseum. But when former decathlon champion Rafer Johnson took the lighted torch from Gina and began his long climb up the stairs in the peristyle end of the Coliseum, I stood up to see better just like everyone else.

I was even more impressed afterward when I discovered that Johnson had practiced negotiating that hydraulically operated stairway four times the week prior to the ceremony and nobody found out about it. I was also impressed when I learned that Johnson's two pre-teen-age kids, although they had been told the secret, never let the official Olympic cat out of the official Olympic bag.

When I first began to wish the Russians and other boycotters had come was when the US men's basketball team began winning its games by three and four touchdowns. The suspense was under-whelming, and while you might want US Coach Bobby Knight on your side in a war, don't turn him loose in a china shop.

At times most of the crowd seemed more interested in trading Olympic pins in the Forum hallways, which provide no view of the action, than in watching Michael Jordan pass a piece of leather through the eye of a needle.

I think I'm probably as patriotic as the next guy. I like to see my country do well. But when it's a tank against a golf cart, I'd rather not look. The medal count difference between the US and West Germany, the runner-up country, was more than 100. Obviously the Russians and East Germans would have made things more interesting in a lot of events.

The US women's volleyball team, despite losing the championship game to China , did win a silver medal - but with a training system so out of whack I hope we never do it again. I'm talking about the seven young women who gave up almost one-third of their lives to practice volleyball eight hours a day, six days a week, for seven years. While they said it was worth it, I wonder.

While I haven't had much contact with foreign journalists, those who knock the US and ''the notorious American way of life'' should know better. Journalists, of all people, should be the first to realize that you don't learn much about how a country lives by covering the first Summer Olympics it has hosted in 52 years.

Better to spend one week each with a family from New England, the Midwest, and the West Coast. Let them camp and cook bacon under some Maine pines; shoot the Colorado river on a rubber raft; go square dancing; or count the stars in an Arizona sky.

While there is nothing wrong with the Olympic Village as a home-away-from-home for foreign athletes, the real America is out there on the horizon - not perfect but laced with beauty and wonder nevertheless.

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