SOME surprising new sports venues are popping up across St. Louis as the United States Olympic Festival-'94 transforms the region into a 26-ring sports extravaganza.
At Six Flags Over Mid-America, the 1,600-foot-long Thunder River ride has become an Olympic-level course for white-water canoe and kayak competitions. Instead of the usual Broadway plays and concerts, boxing matches are being held at the ornate Fox Theatre, built in 1929 as a movie house.
From July 1 to 10, some 3,000 amateur athletes are competing here in 37 sports at 26 sites stretching from downtown St. Louis to southwestern Illinois. All summer Olympic sports are included, along with three Winter Games events - speed skating, figure skating, and ice hockey.
This all-American Olympics was established 16 years ago by the US Olympic Committee. The multisport event showcases American talent and helps prepare aspiring Olympians for the real thing. This is the second of three festivals leading up to the 1996 Centennial Olympics.
Since 1978, Olympic Festivals have been held every summer of non-Olympic years. (After next year's festival, the event will shift to twice every four years.) Athletes represent four regions of the US - North, South, East, and West - and compete for medals just as countries do in the Olympic Games.
For some competitors, this will be the highlight of their athletic careers. Others may be stars in Atlanta in 1996 or at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. Twelve-year-old figure skater Tara Lipinski is one to watch: She became the youngest gold medalist in festival history last weekend after hitting three triple jumps in her long program.
Past festival participants who went on to Olympic fame include speed skater Bonnie Blair, figure skater Nancy Kerrigan, gymnast Mary Lou Retton, diver Greg Louganis, and track-and-field stars Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Carl Lewis.
``The festival ... gives you a taste of what it's all about,'' says Blair, who is in town for the festivities. ``Everything from the opening ceremonies, to the competitions, to the award ceremonies - even sitting in the cafeteria with all the other athletes.''
St. Louis has embraced this year's festival with fervor. The city's Olympic roots are deep. In 1904, the third Olympiad - the first to be held on American soil - was in St. Louis. Ninety years later, the Olympic spirit is still alive here. A call for volunteers overwhelmed festival organizers when more than 15,000 residents responded.
The St. Louis region badly needed a communitywide pick-me-up after last summer's historic flood. The festival offers an upbeat distraction from the anniversary of the early days of flooding.
In the eyes of city leaders, the silver shimmer of the St. Louis Arch is turning to gold, thanks to the festival. The event is expected to pump $77 million into the region's economy. The 500,000 spectators and 3,000 athletes will generate about $23 million; another $54 million will result from construction or renovation of athletic facilities.
Most of the investment took place outside the city limits, however. In 1992, St. Louis residents rejected a four-cent property-tax hike for the construction and renovation of swimming and track-and-field facilities. In St. Peters, Mo., a new $18-million natatorium will accommodate diving, swimming, synchronized swimming, and water polo competitions. Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville built a new track-and-field facility.
Ticket sales are hitting record levels with more than $2.5 million taken in so far. The three fastest-selling sports were figure skating, gymnastics, and baseball. Final competitions in many sports are sold out. But the eclectic list of spectator options includes fencing, archery, judo, roller-skating, and table tennis.
In recent years, interest groups have started using Olympic events as ways to gain publicity. At last year's festival in San Antonio, minority contractors protested not getting their ``fair share'' of construction work on the Alamo Dome. Here in St. Louis, the Congress of Racial Equality is passing out thousands of leaflets calling festival organizers ``racist'' for not involving the black community more.
This may be a preview of the 1996 summer Olympic Games in Atlanta. Gay activists are threatening to boycott the volleyball competition scheduled to take place in Cobb County, Ga., if the county commissioners do not rescind a resolution that condemns the ``gay lifestyle.''
``This is where the Olympic movement is vulnerable,'' says Mike Moran of the Olympic Festival committee. ``Whether the concerns are legitimate or not, it's a tasty opportunity to bring them out.''