High Beauty, `Low Fives' in Spain

AS the Olympics race toward their conclusion, the impressions pile up, one of which is that Atlanta has a tough act to follow as the host to the centennial Games in 1996.

There's no way that Atlanta can match the scenic splendor of Barcelona, which sited its main competition complex atop Mont Juic, perhaps the best piece of real estate the Olympics have ever enjoyed. Even a ticketless tourist would find a trip up the hill (partly aided by marble-bordered escalators) worth the sweat-extracting effort. What awaits beyond the fountains and national palace is a collection of stylish facilities harmonizing old and new in a vast plaza.

Not far away sits the piece de resistance, a combination water-polo and diving venue that overlooks the city. Probably no more spectacular backdrop exists anywhere in the sports world (only the ski jump in Innsbruck, Austria, comes to mind as a contender). Photographers have had a field day shooting divers against the skyline.

To some degree, everyone is welcome to step into this life-size postcard. But you need an invitation to see another amazing face of the Olympics, at a downtown movie theater being used by Nike International, the shoe company.

There, I attended a press conference unlike anything I'd seen at any Olympics before. The lights were dimmed, and a short promotional film was shown. Then, after brief welcoming remarks and another film, members of the company's multinational track and field team walked to center stage as they were introduced. It was press-conference theater, a strange new creation in the Olympic marketplace.

Among other Olympic impressions and observations:

* The warm reception given Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson. If not boos, one might have expected silence rather than cheers for an athlete banished from the '88 Seoul Olympics, stripped of his gold medal after a positive drug test.

* The injustice done to a swimmer who was kept from racing when a referee judged his efforts to put his goggles back on as an attempt at stalling.

* The laughable statement made by the coach of China's women's volleyball team after a loss to the Netherlands: "Our problem is that we have too many young players. They were too nervous." The players in question are 19 and 22 years old, yet poise didn't seem to be a problem for China's 13-year-old Mingxia Fu, who won the women's platform diving title.

* The amusing way the United States women's basketball team greets playmaker Suzie McConnell (5 ft., 4 in.) in the pre-game introduction. She comes out last so that everyone can give "Short Stuff," the nickname on her warmup jacket, a "low five" hand slap.

* The incredible effort by Spain's athletes, who have been inspired not only by super-enthusiastic home crowds, but perhaps also by the offer of a $1-million pension to any Spanish gold medalist.

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