To march or not to march, that is the question many Olympic athletes have had to ask themselves about tonight's opening ceremony.
While it may seem inconceivable that anybody who's trained for years to fulfill their Olympic dreams would pass up these festivities, the fact is that many more athletes do than one might imagine. The reason? The physical demands the ceremony makes upon athletes who want to be ready for peak performances.
The members of the United States women's field hockey team long ago resigned themselves to missing the ceremony, since they must play the Netherlands first thing Saturday morning, and the opening ceremony probably won't end until midnight Atlanta time.
The call is not so clear-cut elsewhere. In swimming, for example, athletes must assess their individual situations.
American freestyler Gary Hall won't walk. "I'll go to the next opening ceremonies [in the year 2000]," he says with farsighted confidence.
Teammate Eric Wunderlich, on the other hand, is just as definite in the other direction.
"I wouldn't miss [the opening ceremony] for the world," says Wunderlich, an Atlanta native who nonetheless wondered about the advisability of doing so until he spoke with Rowdy Gaines, a triple gold medalist in 1984. "I told Rowdy we were going to be trapped in a full stadium for so long and that it was going to be hot. But he said you've got to go, that it was an experience you'll never forget."
"He said that in '84 he wasn't feeling very rested or excited before the Games began, but when he walked through the gates at the Los Angeles Coliseum, the place just rocked. He got really motivated and we know what happened."
The athletes traditionally are at the center of the opening ceremony. Olympic protocol calls for the athletes from every country - 197 in this case - to parade into the Olympic stadium in alphabetical order according to the host country's spelling. The lone exceptions are Greece, which enters first in recognition of its status as the birthplace of the Olympics, and the host country's team, which enters last.
After the athletes assemble, President Clinton will become only the second US chief executive to open the summer Games. (Ronald Reagan did the honors in 1984.)
The Olympic flag then is brought into the stadium and the flame lit by the last runner in the torch relay. Four years ago, Barcelona's organizers used this dramatic moment to great effect by having a disabled Paralympic archer shoot a flaming arrow that ignited the cauldron.
A global TV audience of billions will surely tune in to see what goosebump wrinkles Atlanta will deliver and to learn the identity of the final torch bearer, a person whose name will be etched in Olympic history.