No two Olympics are alike, try as we might to paint these
extravaganzas as bends in a flowing river rather than as
individual ponds of varying characteristics, filled more or less
with the same elixir of dreams and failures, heroes and pain.
Every two years the Olympics reinvent themselves. The athletes
change, as do the venues, the local customs, the civility and
ambitions of the hosts, and the climate--both political and
meteorological. The sports themselves change. So the centennial
Games in Atlanta, the first Confederate Games, the first
Olympics to be held in a city in which the majority of the
citizens are black, are less a statement about where the
Olympics have come in the last hundred years than where Billy
Payne and his Atlanta organizing committee cohorts have placed
them in 1996.
And where might that be? Check the label. This one has Made in
the U.S.A. all over it.
Things made in the U.S.A. generally work pretty well.
Aesthetically, however, these Games will be a long way from the
last two, which were hosted by Barcelona and Lillehammer and
rank as two of the most gorgeously tasteful Olympics in history.
You are what you are, though, and Atlanta is a business-driven
community of office buildings and strip malls that fairly
worships the pagan god Capitalism. It can pride itself on a lot
of things, but being gorgeously tasteful isn't one of them.
Thus have the beautiful plazas and fountains that graced the
Games in Barcelona, the simple, natural beauty of Norway in
midwinter, been replaced in Atlanta by a pantheon of disposable
corporate monuments, totems to the gods who are footing the
bill. AT&T has constructed a Global Olympic Village.
Anheuser-Busch has built a 17,300-square-foot beer garden called
Bud World. A historic Atlanta skyscraper has turned itself into
a giant Swatch display case. And Atlanta's own Coca-Cola, which
most of the world sees as the true host of the centennial Games
("The Olympic ideal has been bottled!" opined one irate Greek
newspaper after Atlanta beat out Athens as host city in the
final International Olympic Committee vote in September 1990),
has built a 12-acre amusement park downtown called the Coca-Cola
Olympic City, replete with a Coke bottle that rises to six
stories and may be the most enduring image visitors take home
from these architecturally spartan Games. All told, between
purchasing the right to be the official nonalcoholic beverage of
the Olympics, hosting the official pin-trading center, buying
television and print advertising, sponsoring the torch relay,
contributing to a variety of U.S. sports federations, and
funding promotions, contests and ticket giveaways, Coca-Cola
will spend upwards of $300 million on the Atlanta Games.
What would the founder of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de
Coubertin, think of this corporate hijacking of the Olympic
spirit? We might be surprised. A high-minded French idealist and
visionary, de Coubertin (page 250) discovered firsthand how
difficult it was to finance the inaugural modern Olympics, held
in Athens in 1896. Those Games were attended by only 311
athletes from 13 countries. Atlanta will entertain an estimated
11,000 athletes from a record 197 countries. For the first time,
every nation that was invited is coming. The tab will come in at
about $1.7 billion. How many cities can afford that? The baron's
goal was always, first and foremost, to bring people from all
over the world together to promote physical fitness and friendly
competition, for "the general welfare and the betterment of
humanity." Given a choice between a small, pure, commercial-free
Olympics, and the come-one, come-all festival of Atlanta, the
largest sporting event ever held, the guess here is that the
baron would have called it a no-brainer. An international
brotherhood forged through a mixture of sport and global
consumerism may be less romantic than one forged entirely
through sport, but in the end it is equally binding.
That the original Hellenic ideals of the Olympics may be
completely overwhelmed by Atlanta's commercial overkill could
dismay some Americans, but it will come as no surprise to
visitors from other countries, who may know us better than we
know ourselves. In 1904, when the Olympics were held in St.
Louis, the program was filled out with something called
Anthropological Days, a two-day competition among African
Pygmies, Sioux Indians, South American Patagonians, Ainus from
Japan and tribesmen from the Philippines. They vied for
supremacy in events such as mud fighting, which the Pygmies, who
were no doubt the hardest to hit, won. "In no place but
America," de Coubertin observed, accurately. Tasteless,
over-the-top (over the bottle top?) marketing schemes--corporate
kitsch--is what Americans have always done best. You want art,
history and culture, go to Athens. The IOC could have and chose
not to. You want huge television-rights fees, six-story Coke
bottles and overweight people in shorts playing virtual-reality
games, go to the home of Delta, The Home Depot and CNN.
A Made in the U.S.A. label is also stitched on a number of new
Olympic sports. The mind boggles at what the baron might have
thought of beach volleyball, which along with mountain biking
and women's softball becomes a medal sport this year. All three
of these red, white and blue creations should bring medals for
the home team, and the U.S. women's softball team, which has
built a 110-1 record in international competition since 1986, is
regarded by some as a variation on basketball's Dream Team. If
SI's predictions (page 229) are accurate, the U.S. will win 136
medals in Atlanta, 48 of them gold. That's up substantially from
the 108 total medals, 37 gold, won in 1992.
Even the athletes will be disproportionately Made in the U.S.A.
Not necessarily created here. But recruited, coached, trained
and housed on American soil. We're not just talking about the
likes of Carl Lewis, who in qualifying for the long jump became
the first five-time male U.S. Olympian. Or Atlanta's own Gwen
Torrence, one of a half dozen Georgia natives whose chances to
medal are excellent. Or Michael Johnson (page 72), whose quest
to become the first male runner to win the 200 and 400 meters in
the same Olympics will be the focal point of the track and field
competition. We refer to the dozens of foreign athletes who went
to, or are now attending, NCAA colleges. Many of these athletes
have adopted the U.S. as their permanent training grounds. The
list is almost endless, but among the more prominent names is
that of Ireland's Sonia O'Sullivan, who went to Villanova and is
the world's top-ranked woman at 1,500 and 3,000 meters. Juliet
Cuthbert of Jamaica, silver medalist in both the 100 and 200
meters in Barcelona, attended the University of Texas. Ato
Boldon of Trinidad and Tobago, a strong contender for the title
of World's Fastest Man, won the 100 at the NCAA championships
this year for UCLA. And South Africa's Penny Heyns, a former
University of Nebraska swimmer, is favored to win the 100-meter
Nationalism at the Olympics is fast becoming an anachronistic
concept, a development that de Coubertin--a fierce
internationalist--would applaud. Borders, like watercolors, are
beginning to blur, and an athlete's citizenship has become
little more than a low hurdle, easily cleared and left behind.
Footwear companies, whose endorsement contracts enable Olympic
prospects to earn a living by competing, now command more
loyalty than national flags.
Examples of athletes jumping to other countries are legion.
Wrestlers and gymnasts from republics that made up the former
Soviet Union have scattered to Olympic teams around the globe.
The entire Canadian 4x100-meter relay team, which won the 1995
world title, is transplanted from the Caribbean. Of its members,
Donovan Bailey (page 142) and Robert Esmie were both born in
Jamaica, Glenroy Gilbert is a native of Trinidad and Tobago, and
Bruny Surin is from Haiti.
The most extraordinary case of a free agent of the rings is Mark
McKoy, the defending Olympic gold medalist in the 110-meter
hurdles, who will compete this summer for, oh, let's see, why
Born in Guyana, McKoy moved to England with his family when he
was nine months old, then to Canada when he was 12. McKoy went
to college at Clemson, then later graduated from LSU. He was
competing for Canada when he won his gold medal in Barcelona,
but in 1993 he had a falling out with the Canadian track
federation. McKoy's agent is an Austrian named Robert Wagner. No
Austrian man has ever won a gold medal in track and field, so
Wagner was able to help McKoy get Austrian citizenship--which
ordinarily takes up to 10 years to attain--in less than a year.
This despite the fact that McKoy has never lived in Austria for
more than two months at a time. The address that he and his
wife, Yvette Grabner (who, coincidentally, is German), keep
there is, in fact, Wagner's apartment. McKoy now has his
residence in Monaco, to keep him from the clutches of both the
Canadian and the Austrian tax men. "In the athletics world most
people want the best people on the track," the 32-year-old McKoy
says. "They don't care where you're from. It's supposed to be
the best against the best, right?"
The global economy's mantra of free trade is now echoed in the
Olympic movement. And appropriately so. Sport should mirror
society. Have talent/Will travel. Caribbean sprinters star for
Canada in the summer and Canadian hockey players star on
European Olympic teams in the winter. The U.S. is no more
protectionist with its Olympic roster than it is with, say, its
textile industry. One member of the men's field hockey team is
from the Netherlands, and one is from Egypt. Four of the six
players on the U.S. table tennis team were born in China. And
lest you forget, Dream Teamer Hakeem Olajuwon was born in Nigeria.
Give us your supremely talented, as well as your tired, hungry
and poor. Bring 'em down to Hotlanta, put them in uniform, then
hand out large (one-story) bottles of Powerade (another fine
product of the Coca-Cola company) so none of these fine athletes
and citizens of the world will expire from heat stroke during
the opening ceremonies.
Because there's one thing you can be sure of: When the Georgia
sun shines during the XXVI Olympics, it will shine like Sherman,
burning everything in its path. Indiscriminate scorching. Rich
and poor; Serb and Croat; Yank and Reb; black, white and
brown--all mankind will be left scrambling for shade. If that
shade happens to be provided by some oversized corporate
obelisk, so be it. The important thing, the thing that the baron
had in mind all along, is that everyone will scramble together.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MICHAEL O'NEILL THE SKY'S THE LIMIT FOR CUBAN HIGH JUMPER JAVIER SOTOMAYOR [T of C]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MICHAEL O'NEILL JACKSON RICHARDSON MAKES FRANCE A MONUMENTAL FORCE IN TEAM HANDBALL [T of C]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BOB MARTIN KIM BATTEN OF THE U.S. IS HURDLING TOWARD A GOLD MEDAL [T of C]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MICHAEL O'NEILL MANUEL ESTIARTE OF SPAIN RULES THE POOL AS WATER POLO'S LEADING SCORER IN THE LAST FOUR OLYMPICS [T of C]
COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER LIKE JOHNSON (PREVIOUS PAGE), MOUNTAIN BIKING IS ALL-AMERICAN [Michael Johnson]
COLOR PHOTO: CARL YARBROUGH [See caption above--man riding mountain bike]
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS THE U.S. IS PRIMED FOR A MEDAL IN ANOTHER HOMEGROWN SPORT, BEACH VOLLEYBALL [Man playing volleyball]
COLOR PHOTO: WALTER IOOSS JR. DULY LOYAL TO THEIR SPONSORS, ATHLETES OCCASIONALLY BECOME HUMAN BILLBOARDS [Shot-putter wearing "Foot Locker" shirt]
COLOR PHOTO: RONALD C. MODRA THE GUYANA-BORN MCKOY FIRST HURDLED ONTO CANADA'S OLYMPIC TEAM, AND NOW HE RACES FOR AUSTRIA [Mark McKoy hurdling]