AL OERTER, a much-decorated American discus thrower, once described the Olympics of the 1950s and '60s as "county fairs." Today the Games are almost unmanageably large. But that hasn't suppressed the enthusiasm among organizers of the Games of the XXVth Olympiad. They stand ready to host the biggest athletic event in history, July 25 to Aug. 9.
The Games are filled with sports that seem strange bedfellows - from the highly professionalized (basketball and tennis) to those with aristocratic images (yachting and equestrian events) to the traditional (track and field) to what some may see as arcane (team handball, archery, and more). Taken together, however, they form a
captivating athletic spectrum that Bud Greenspan, an Olympic filmmaker, says fascinates people because the Olympics "go back so many centuries, it's every four years, and it's the best in the world."
Saturday's opening ceremony could produce one of the most striking features of the 16-day spectacular simply by orchestrating a hitch-free parade of athletes. About 10,000 people, representing 172 countries (both records) are expected to march in, including representatives of Cuba, missing from action during the last two Olympics for political reasons.
"Gigantism," as Olympic sprawl is known, presents a hurdle for the Games as they head toward their modern centennial in Atlanta in 1996. Even so, "big" may translate as "beautiful" in Barcelona.
For years the Olympic officials have been frustrated in their attempts to get the whole "family" together. They have been foiled by boycotts of various sorts, or in the case of South Africa, exclusion, because apartheid flies in the face of the Olympic Charter. Now, however, virtually every member nation may answer the roll call, with every effort being made to allow Yugoslavian athletes to compete despite United Nations sanctions against the warring Serbian government.
Total participation is seen as a cherished objective of Juan Antonio Samaranch, the International Olympic Committee president and a Barcelona native. Obviously, he'd like the first Olympics held on Spanish soil to be special and to establish this Mediterranean metropolis as world-class.
In 1936, Barcelona was prepared to host an alternative to Hitler's Berlin 1936 Olympics, but the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War canceled those People's Olympics the day before their scheduled start.
The architectural centerpiece of that event was to have been Olympic Stadium, built in 1929. Still wearing its original facade but enlarged and modernized inside, it should achieve landmark status this time as the site of the opening and closing ceremonies and the track and field events. The stadium anchors the sports facilities in the Montjuic area, where 10 sports will be contended in something called the Olympic Ring.
All roads and air routes seem to lead to Spain these days, whether for the Olympics or the World's Fair in Seville. The Iberian Peninsula, from which Columbus sailed 500 years ago, is hot, often literally as well as figuratively. To avoid the heat of the day, both the men's and women's marathons will begin at 6:30 p.m.
No matter when events are held, however, hardly any will be seen live on North American prime time TV because of the six-to-nine-hour time difference. NBC, which paid $400 million for the TV rights, is resigned to airing hours of prerecorded footage. Easily the most daring TV development is NBC's decision to provide a joint-venture "Triplecast," a pay-per-view supplemental cable option for those with insatiable viewing appetites and $95 to $170 to spend. There have been few nibbles, though, and the exper iment threatens to be an electronic Edsel.
Most Olympic TV watchers apparently don't see the necessity of blanket coverage, including that of normally invisible preliminary rounds and competition. However, favorable TV ratings for a succession of basketball blowouts in a pre-Olympic qualifying tournament suggest that curiosity can overcome insignificance.
The interest in this case was in the "Dream Team," the galaxy of National Basketball Association players assembled by the United States to restore the country's sagging hardcourt honor (a squad of collegians won the bronze at the '88 Seoul Games).
A change in basketball's Olympic eligibility rules has opened the door to millionaire superstars like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird, whose greatest challenge in Barcelona may be in coping with their celebrity status.
Dave Gavitt, president of USA Basketball, says the team will stay in the Olympic Village at least part of the time because "It could be the only sanctuary the players have." A new hotel, however, is expected to be the team's prime - and some think its only - residence.
During the pre-Olympic tourney in Portland, Ore., the so-called "greatest team ever assembled" defeated six hemispheric opponents by an average of 51.5 points. The scores could be nearly as lopsided in Barcelona, where European political upheaval may weaken the field. The breakaway republics of Lithuania and Croatia, for example, are the chief "threats" and nominal defenders of the gold and silver medals won by the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, re-spectively, four years ago.
The fission of the former USSR will be watched closely for signs of what Olympic historian David Wallechinsky calls "the disintegration of an advanced sports system." But he adds that it "should still be performing with momentum. [The Unified Team] is still the strongest that will be in Barcelona, but at the next Olympics you will be seeing 15 separate teams."
A major story of these Games is the return of South Africa to the Olympic fold after an absence of several decades. The statutory abolishment of apartheid has paved the way to reinstatement. A racially mixed team, short on international experience, will attempt to overcome years of isolation.
That country's most serious medal hope is white distance runner Elana Meyer, but it is the participation of Zola Budd Pieterse that may generate the most interest. Representing Great Britain in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, the barefooted teenager's 3,000-meter showdown with Mary Decker Slaney was marred by a collision midway through the race.
NOW 25, married, and living again in South Africa, Ms. Pieterse returns less heralded athletically but more mature, a symbol of her homeland's struggles.
No reunion of rivals will occur, however, as Decker Slaney failed to make the American team at the US Olympic trials.
In that selection meet, a sub-par Carl Lewis, winner of a total of seven gold medals in 1984 and '88, made the US team as a long jumper but failed to secure an Olympic spot as a sprinter in either the 200 or 100 meters. In Barcelona, his absence in the latter event, where he is the world record holder and two-time Olympic champion, may seem especially peculiar, given the presence of Ben Johnson, the Canadian who was stripped of the gold medal in 1988 after testing positive for drugs. Johnson only recentl y completed an international suspension.
The reunified German team will have to look for stars other than sprinter Katrin Krabbe, who decided not to run in Barcelona even though her drug-test suspension was lifted. The team could find plenty within a deep and well-rounded delegation. Many observers, however, will watch for signs of team dissension, brought on by the sometimes tense fusion of the former East and West Germanys.
Long-rumored drug use by some East German athletes has been confirmed since the last Olympics, but clouds of suspicion may linger over others. A cleanup is expected to have a dramatic impact in swimming, where American women are expected to retake the spotlight. (See related story.)
The Barcelona Olympics will be filled with kaleidoscopic athletic images, of splashless Chinese divers, of Jackie Joyner Kersee chasing more track and field glory, of baseball finally being played for keeps, of gymnasts breaking the "envelopes" of human movement, of wrestlers and boxers locked in primitive combat.
Toss in the emotion, drama, and stakes that energize any Olympics, and the next two weeks in Spain promise to be one of the greatest shows on earth.