Talented USA Olympians Could Win Record Gold

'Honk For USA" urges a sign writ large on the side of a downtown Atlanta foundry. Given the quality and depth of American Olympic athletes, there could be a whole lot a honkin' goin' on once the Centennial Games begin tomorrow night.

Citizens who like to see Old Glory paint the breeze during Olympic awards ceremonies could bust their Made-in-the-USA buttons while cheering a parade of American medalists.

With one of the most talented and experienced athletic pools in its history, the US team is expected to win the overall medal race. In a bottom line-oriented society, that is a significant measure of success, one not achieved at a nonboycotted Olympics since 1968.

The US overwhelmed every nation at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, when the flag-waving got a little out of hand, but that was a skewed result given the absence of the Soviet Union and its East bloc allies.

For the first time, every country invited will compete. The home-field advantage can certainly help in such a context, and the Americans are clearly expected to capitalize on it.

Great expectations of course can be their own burden. "We are going to be very closely and critically analyzed," says LeRoy Walker, president of the United States Olympic Committee. "You can't explain [disappointment] away as easily as if you were at the Games in Barcelona or Sydney."

At the two most recent Summer Games, the host country has used the opportunity to goad its athletes to new levels of achievement. Both South Korea and Spain offered rich rewards for winning gold medals, a decision that paid dividends. South Korea's 12 golds in 1988 doubled its '84 output, and Spain's 13 golds in 1992 were a spectacular improvement over its solitary Olympic victory in 1988.

Money will be part of the the US strategy, too. US weightlifting, for example, will give any American winners $50,000. Similar financial incentives are in place in other sports. Regardless of whether structured reward systems are in place, corporate America always stands ready to endow gold-medal winners with endorsement deals.

Fame and fortune are strong lures, and a number of American athletes have already gained considerable fame before the Olympic flame is even lit.

Athletes who have graced the covers of major national publications include sprinter Michael Johnson and decathlete Dan O'Brien.

Formerly dependent on private funding, the US Olympic Committee gradually found new and better ways to compete with government-supported programs. Now it is the world leader in private-sector sports development - with everything from an Olympic Job Opportunity Program - which allows athletes to work and train, to Hometeam '96, a program designed as a safety net to make sure all bases are covered in developing medal-caliber athletes.

Monies in the latter case have gone toward various training expenses and even media-interview schooling for potential Olympic medalists.

Individually, sport-governing bodies have ridden to their own rescue. Perhaps most notable is the US Cycling Federation's million-dollar Superbike initiative. Begun after American cyclists showed poorly at the 1992 Olympics, the program has put American riders on the best possible equipment. Bolts and washers have been eliminated on the aerodynamically advanced Superbike 2, which was unveiled in April, late enough that it couldn't be copied by other nations.

Technology aside, cycling, like other sports, stands to benefit from having well-seasoned athletes dotting the US team roster. Rebecca Twigg, a road cyclist, is a two-time Olympic medalist who actually retired for three years beginning in 1989. Kent Bostick is senior enough that his sons jokingly call their pedal-pumping dad "Bostisaurus." The theme is repeated in many contexts as mature athletes seek one last fling, or in some cases their first fling, at Olympic glory before the home crowds.

In some cases, the longevity is partly a factor of increased opportunity, says Tom Tellez, coach of track star Carl Lewis. "Better athletes are staying in the sport longer because they're able to make a living. It's just like professional sports."

Lewis, a winner of eight gold medals since 1984, has been in the forefront of professionalizing track and field, much as Karch Kiraly has been in volleyball. Kiraly, a two-time gold medalist of the indoor Olympic game, now turns his attention to collecting a third gold in the new beach volleyball event. He has been a formidable pioneer on the pro beach circuit for a number of years.

Other veterans looking to add extra memories to their Olympic scrapbooks are heavyweight wrestler Bruce Baumgartner, already a three-time medalist, basketball player, Teresa Edwards, who is entering her fourth Olympics, track star Jackie Joyner-Kersee, winner of the heptathlon in 1988 and 1992, and swimmer Janet Evans, who can tie or pass retired speed skater Bonnie Blair as America's career leader in Olympic gold medals with five.

Evans was one of the few American women stemming a tide of medals for East Germany in 1988. Now the Chinese are a major force and swimming has seen greater international competitiveness.

The sport where old-style American dominance should be most clear-cut is basketball. The latest version of the men's team may be absent Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan, marquee attractions of the original Dream Team squad. But in some ways the current team could be even more intimidating than that group that won the '92 Olympic title. This year's team has a superlative trio in David Robinson, Shaquille O'Neal, and Hakeem Olajuwon.

The US women's basketball team looks equally dynamic, having played more than a season's worth of games undefeated. This is the first time the Americans have practiced and played together for an extended period. A similar approach is expected to help the women's soccer team, which hopes to win the gold in the Olympic inauguration of this event.

Maybe the real Dream Team from an American perspective could be the softball squad, which also is competing in a women's event. With an overpowering staff of pitchers, the US seldom loses. China inflicted a rare loss last year during a major international competition, but paid the price for this transgression in the final, when the Americans prevailed, 8-0.

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