Finally Time to Stop the Talk And Start the Clock

For 16 days, athletes from 197 nations will test their skills, grit, and fortitude at historic Games

'Let the Games begin." (Please!) For after years of talk about security, transportation, tickets, and endless organizational plans, Atlanta is finally poised to shift attent to where it belongs - on sports.

After Friday night's Opening Ceremony before a packed stadium and billions of TV viewers, the early-bird events of 16 days of athletic competition begin.

Field hockey kicks off the Games with a Day 1 wake-up call, namely, an 8:30 a.m. women's preliminary game.

A squad of women take aim in the air pistol event at 9 o'clock, and by the time NBC airs later in the day, some Annie Oakley will probably have roped in the Games' first gold medal.

Having a woman first up on the victory stand offers a striking counterpoint to the first modern Olympics in 1896, when women were excluded.

The sometimes lethargic Olympic movement has decided to up the pace of female participation, at least athletically. While falling short of numerical equity, (4,000 women compared to 6,000 men), women will nonetheless compete in record numbers, thanks to the addition of women's soccer and softball, and expanded fields in other sports. Part of the reason Atlanta was selected to host the Games, says Richard Pound, a high-ranking International Olympic official, is that the Centennial Games want to move ahead, not live in the past. Athens might have seemed the logical place, having hosted the first modern Olympics.

On the occasion of such a landmark anniversary, however, people will naturally want to look back. The United States plans a reunion of its 100 greatest living Olympians tomorrow. One use of an anniversary is to measure progress. The Olympic motto, "Citius, Altius, Fortius" is generally taken to mean "Swifter, Higher, Stronger," and the Games have certainly achieved that mandate. Look at two events on the original Olympic program: the men's 100 meters and high jump. In 1896, Thomas Burke won the 100-meter dash in 12 seconds flat; today the world record is below 10 seconds. In the high jump, Ellery Clark cleared 5 ft., 11-1/4 in. 100 years ago to win in Athens; in Atlanta the winner will probably leap nearly two feet higher. (The world record is 8 ft., 1/2 in.)

Speaking of world records, the most impervious modern mark in men's track and field fell to sprinter Michael Johnson, a projected superstar of these Games, just weeks ago. Running at the US Olympic trials, Johnson shaved six hundredths of a second off the 19.72 clocking registered by Italy's Pietro Mennea in 1979. Johnson, a hot-weather Texan, appears primed for more fleet-footed fireworks during the Games. He will attempt to become the first man to win both the 200 and 400 meters, and the first to accomplish the feat at a nonboycotted Olympics.

Game officials have accommodated Johnson's desire to attempt this double by switching the track and field schedule, allowing him a day's rest between events. Still, he must successfully run eight races in seven days to turn the trick.

Greatest show on earth

Pomp, purpose, and passion are often cross-wired under the Olympic big top, which unarguably houses the greatest athletic show on earth. This time, the sheer breadth of participation is breathtaking, with a full house of 197 countries and states sending athletes. Even reluctant North Korea has come.

Palestine will be represented for the first time, as will such little-known geopolitical entities as Comoros, Nauru, and Guinea-Bissau.

The Olympics shall long continue to have its superpowers, but the good news multiculturally speaking, is that athletic excellence seems to be more widespread.

Take track and field, for instance, which is at the very center of the Games. Thirty-five countries won medals at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, and at last year's world championships, the laurels were even more widespread, with 43 countries registering on the win-place-and-show tables. Ghada Shousa, a Syrian in the seven-event heptathlon, took her country's first world championship in any sport. Such breakthroughs have become more and more common, perhaps reflecting just what a small, interwoven world sports is becoming.

For the most part, it seems a friendlier one, too, now that cold-war tensions are a receding memory. One of its last vestiges was the Unified Team, which tenuously maintained an alliance among a number of the former Soviet republics in 1992. This time, everybody's on their own.

The Games won't be without some political tensions. Cuba will hope to make an impression under Uncle Sam's nose while watching warily for team defections like those that struck at the baseball and boxing rosters recently.

Croatia and Yugoslavia are expected to engage in a fierce basketball battle for the silver medal (the gold has all but been awarded to the US Dream Team), and possibly for the gold in water polo. Another arena where events may create a sense of uneasiness is swimming, where the Chinese made such a splash in 1992 that Western powers became highly suspicious. A number of Chinese women subsequently tested positive for drugs, but now the wrongdoers have supposedly been expunged.

The Chinese divers' aerial maneuvers are a match for the dryland stunts of a host of brilliant gymnasts, including the most decorated 1992 Olympian, Belarus's Vitaly Scherbo, who won six gold medals in Barcelona.

At the Games, however, women gymnasts often hold center stage, and American stars like Shannon Miller and young Dominique Moceanu, (if recovered from injuries) could conceivably share the medals podium with the East Europeans.

Revamped sports program

The Olympic brass has retailored the over-all Games program. Beach volleyball and mountain biking have been added. Solo and duet events in synchronized swimming have been have dropped to go instead with a team competition.

Modern pentathlon, the run, shoot, swim, fence, and ride discipline favored by Olympic founder Baron de Coubertin, has been shrunk from four days into one. Lightweight crews will debut in rowing.

One significant change that may not be readily noticeable to the unpracticed eye will occur in cycling, where professionals now are eligible.

That could turn the Olympics into a fascinating epilogue to the Tour de France, which ends just soon enough to allow Miguel Indurain, Lance Armstrong, and other superstars to cool their wheels. The Games continue to move toward "open" competition. One sport that refuses to follow the trend, perhaps to its own peril, is baseball.

But if Major Leaguers are still denied entry, at least baseball in the Olympics will have a Major League backdrop. All games will be played in Fulton-County Stadium, home of the Atlanta Braves. The Braves will move into the new, reconfigured Olympic Stadium next year, (this summer's track and field venue).

The Games end Aug. 4, but not exactly the way organizers planned. They had hoped the men's marathon would conclude the Olympics, as is traditional, just as the Closing Ceremony is about to begin. However, heat was a concern, and the race was rescheduled to begin at 7 a.m.

The marathoners won't be denied a stadium reception, though, since tickets to the race's finish have been sold. An Olympic effort, after all, deserves an Olympic ovation, especially for those expending the last ounce of athletic energy of the Centennial Games.

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