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The message became clouded through all the years, months, weeks
and days of counting down toward Atlanta '96. To whom do these
Olympic Games belong? Are they the personal province of Billy
Payne, the Atlanta lawyer who brought them to this unlikely
place? Are they the property of Atlanta itself, which at last
has a meaningful title--Home of the 1996 Olympics--that may
stick? Do they belong to the wealthy corporations that are
underwriting their renewal? Can they be stolen by fear when a
flaming airplane falls from the sky so close to their beginning?

Tonight a torch will be ignited in a kaleidoscopic cauldron at
the north end of Olympic Stadium. Athletes--a record 11,000 of
them from a record 197 countries--will march together, bearing
flags. A solemn oath will be taken. The opening ceremonies of an
Olympic Games are quite unlike any other event on the planet,
fairly bursting with emotions shared among people as diverse as
the earth itself, people filled with hope, with fear, with
celebration upon their very arrival on such a grand stage. "You
eat, sleep and drink your goal, and then you're there and it's
an incredible feeling," says Evelyn Ashford, the 100-meter gold
medalist in 1984, who ran in three Olympics all told.

"You walk into the stadium, and that's the melting point," says
U.S. volleyball team captain Bob Ctvrtlik, who is competing in
his third Olympics. "All the other things that you've been
dealing with--your wife and tickets and all of that--is gone.
You can finally focus on the competition, what it is that you're
here to do." So at last the message becomes blessedly simple:
Tonight is when the Olympics are passed into the hands of the

It will be a joyous passage too. When there are not yet events
to lift us, we find something else to evaluate. So in the past
four years more has been written and broadcast about grits,
Coca-Cola, Gone With the Wind and Andrew Young than ever needed
to be known. It has been suggested that no city whose primary
Olympic crossroads is an intersection that has both a Planet
Hollywood and a Hard Rock Cafe (check it out: Peachtree Street
and International Boulevard, right in the middle of downtown)
deserves the bouquet of the Games. It has been feared that the
Olympic movement will be stained by its southern hosts. And it
has been asked, again and again and again: Is Atlanta ready for
the Olympics?

The answer is: It doesn't matter anymore what Atlanta is, was or
wishes to be, or how much money Budweiser (or SPORTS
ILLUSTRATED) has pumped into these Games for its own needs. It
isn't important how much is being charged for a hotel room in
Buckhead or a taxi from the airport. In the next 16 days and
nights, the athletes of the world will render meaningless the
chatter that preceded these Games. They will make Atlanta what
any host city is meant to be: a backdrop, the scenery against
which the Games unfold. It can be as timeless and breathtakingly
beautiful as Norway in winter or as rushed as the sod and
concrete of Centennial Olympic Park. Ultimately the surroundings
become inconsequential, to be remembered only vaguely, like the
decor of the hospital room in which a child is born.

Lake Placid was far too small and the transportation system was
a disaster, yet we see in our minds Mike Eruzione tossing a
wrist shot past a Soviet goalie, and Jim Craig wrapped in the
flag. Los Angeles was big enough to swallow the Games like
another Oscar night, but we remember Mary Lou Retton's vault and
Joan Benoit's marathon. It was too warm in Albertville, but
there was speed skater Bonnie Blair, assuring us that it was
winter by winning two gold medals. History has taught us that
the Games are far larger than a city's or a country's influence
or legacy. It has taught us too that Olympic achievement cannot
be erased by the most trying human drama, by controversy or by
tragedy. Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised black gloves into
the Mexico City evening, but who can forget Bob Beamon and Bill
Toomey? Eleven Israeli athletes were slaughtered in Munich and
their memory lives forever, but so do the images of Frank
Shorter, Mark Spitz and the inconceivable defeat of the U.S.
men's basketball team, a loss that ultimately brought the NBA
and IOC together.

A great sporting moment is a snapshot, left to travel in the
mind, always alive. Here is Michael Jordan, floating to the
basket; there is Joe Montana, saving a game. Muhammad Ali,
blowing kisses. The Olympics are no different. We remember Nadia
Comaneci scoring perfect 10s in 1976 and Carl Lewis exulting
after each of his four gold medals in '84. The images are as
fresh as life on a summer evening. It is 1988, and the sound of
Greg Louganis's head smacking the diving board is as jarring as
this morning's alarm. It is 1992, and there is Magic, Larry,

The Olympics strike an emotional chord like few events in
mainstream sport, sometimes in places where we would never have
known to look. In '84 superheavyweight Greco-Roman wrestler Jeff
Blatnick, who had undergone treatment for Hodgkin's disease, won
a gold medal and wept like a baby. In '94 Dan Jansen finally won
the speed skating gold that had so sadly eluded him in two
previous Olympics, and then he skated a slow lap with his infant
child, Janie, and pointed toward the heavens in memory of his
sister, Jane, who had died the morning of his first attempt, six
years earlier.

All of these images live, as brightly as the day they happened
and long after the memory of Calgary or Seoul or Barcelona or
Lillehammer itself has melted away. So think not of these
Atlanta Games as a quest for bottled springwater and air
conditioning but as a canvas on which the colors of the Games
are splashed, leaving their legacy.

It is easy sometimes to know where to look: into the cold,
professional eyes of sprinter Michael Johnson, who is favored to
become the first man in history to win both the 200- and
400-meter races in one Olympics. Or at the squat, powerful form
of Turkish weightlifter Naim Suleymanoglu, who will be seeking
his third consecutive gold medal in the 141-pound division. Or
at the effortless strokes of Janet Evans, who will attempt to
win the 800-meter freestyle and become the first U.S. female
swimmer to win the same event in three consecutive Olympics.

The Games give us a fresh forum in which to view the likes of
Monica Seles, Karch Kiraly and, of course, Shaquille O'Neal,
Penny Hardaway and Grant Hill, all of whom are as ubiquitous on
our TV sets as Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer, and all of whom
have made the appealing choice to play only for the medal and
not the money. At least not directly. The Olympics offer the
chance to bid farewell to Lewis, who can win his ninth gold
medal, matching a record held by Spitz, Soviet gymnast Larissa
Latynina and Finnish distance runner Paavo Nurmi. Or we may be
saying goodbye to Jackie Joyner-Kersee, who in her quest to win
a third gold in the heptathlon is confronted by the dual ravages
of age (she is 34) and a youthful foe, 22-year-old Ghada Shouaa
of Syria, who is frightfully better each time she competes. The
Olympics frame rivalries, like that of Gary Hall Jr. of the U.S.
and Aleksandr Popov of Russia, two sleek free spirits who will
be matched again in the quicksilver 50- and 100-meter freestyle
swimming events.

But the most compelling essence of the Games is not the
predictable greatness, the Dream Teams or the bittersweet
goodbyes. It is the discovery of a champion otherwise lost in a
sport that springs to life only at an Olympics. It is waking one
morning without a basketball ticket and settling, instead, for a
minor sport. In the absence of superstars in familiar arenas,
you perhaps witness British rowers Steven Redgrave and Matthew
Pinsent, who are favored to win the gold medal in the pairs
without cox in Atlanta. (A victory would give Redgrave a gold
medal in four consecutive Olympics, a rarefied place in
history). Or maybe you wind up watching superheavyweight
Greco-Roman wrestler Aleksandr Karelin of Russia, who seems to
embrace the violence in his work and is surely the most
intimidating presence at these Games.

There is a rare chance at the Olympics to comprehend and
appreciate an athletic feat that might otherwise be skimmed over
in antiseptic print. It is one thing to read in the small type
of a newspaper that Ethiopian distance runner Haile Gebrselassie
has broken the world records for both the 5,000- and
10,000-meter runs, but it is quite another to see him circling
the burnt-orange track at a pace approaching four minutes per
mile for 121/2 laps in the 5K and at less than 4:20 per mile for
25 laps of the 10K--a rate that, upon close examination, appears
very much like that of a common man in an all-out sprint.

Unseen, a sport like team handball sounds oddly misplaced. The
Olympic version is a blur, like indoor soccer played with the
hands. Badminton and table tennis bear little resemblance to the
games on summer lawns and in basement rec rooms, respectively;
instead, they are too fast for the untrained eye. Water polo is
sedate on the surface, relentless and violent below it, a
churning pool of eggbeater kicks. Every sport is stuffed with
champions, athletes who have sacrificed incalculably.

Each day of the Olympics gives birth to another hero, another
man, woman or child who may have forsaken normalcy for as many
as 10 years in pursuit of this moment, some with scant hope of
recompense. They are champions not yet known. In two weeks we
will know them, respect them. Perhaps we will cry with them as
they stand on the victory platform, as flags are raised and
anthems played. Perhaps we will marvel at this power the Games
have to slice through our hard-earned cynicism.

Surely the Olympics are built on an imperious precept. The
nations of the world, so often riven by conflicts large and
small, coming together in sport? It seems folly. To also sell
tickets and to transport spectators, athletes and the many VIPs
that descend upon Olympic sites? Why, it just seems too large,
too hopeful. If such a thing were newly suggested, it would be
laughed from the floor or given to some consortium of Nike and
Disney to toy with. Yet it works. Lord, how it works. It works
because of the athletes. Tonight the Olympics become theirs.


COLOR PHOTO: ADAM STOLTMAN With the downtown skyline asbackdrop, women's field hockey springs to life at Morris Brown. [Aerial view of athletes on field]

COLOR PHOTO: WERNER NOSKO/REUTERS Count on Suleymanoglu to carry the weight of a two-time gold medalist, and watch for Shouaa (opposite) to step up to Olympic glory. [Naim Suleymanoglu lifting weights]

COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN [See caption above--Ghada Shouaa throwing javelin]

COLOR PHOTO: ADAM STOLTMAN At the Olympics, archery is one of the minor sports that draws more than its target audience. [Athletes taking aim with bows and arrows]