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Slings And Arrows Didn’t Get To Be The Main Event

Sun., Aug. 11, 1996

Games of the XXVI Olympiad were overshadowed by media criticism from the very beginning. This was their chance to take a 17-day break from gloom-and-doom reporting and focus on the positive stories that were about to shine. That didn’t happen.

So, I made it my mission to look for the silver (or gold or bronze) lining around every storm cloud the media produced.

The first rumblings reflected the horrible traffic conditions in Atlanta. European newspapers were ready to call the Olympics a disaster before they had even begun. With a record 197 countries, thousands of athletes, and hundreds of thousands of spectators one might expect confusion and delays. That’s the nature of traffic - even in cities not hosting the Olympics.

The thunder grew louder less than a week into the games. I came across an article by Tony Kornheiser of the Washington Post that was so mean-spirited, I had to catch my breath after reading it. After four days of competition he concluded the following: American athletes could not lose without accusing the winners of using drugs; coverage of the games in the media was jingoistic; Americans were a bunch of flag-wavers; we should be winning the most medals because we have the most athletes and the most money to train them; and, finally, nobody cared about the Dream Team this time around, including the Dream Team.

What is so despicable about fans chanting “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” in support of our athletes? And since when is it considered jingoistic to wave our flag? Cheering-on the home team now bordered on the criminal.

Would we win the most medals? We did have the most athletes competing but many of our athletes trained without any government funding. They trained for the Olympics because they love their sport, not because they expected to be reimbursed.

And the Dream Team? Maybe the players suffered from simple association. Theirs was a different team with different dynamics. The more other countries practice, the greater the challenge to future U.S. basketball teams will be.

With a roar, the storm suddenly broke over Atlanta, raining shrapnel from a pipe bomb on people caught off guard. And just as quickly all the criticism stopped.

There was finally some real reporting to be done.

Somber news briefs. Interviews with witnesses and victims. No time to worry about potential cheaters or chants of “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” pelting the competitors. The Olympics had become just another headline and lead-in news story to remind us that terror was never far away.

But the Olympic flame continued to burn. The Olympic spirit refused to break.

The storm clouds had barely cleared when the distant rumbling returned. The reopening of Centennial Olympic Park was decried as just another spectacle to be despised. Acknowledgment for the victims was too brief. The moment of silence was just that, and the park was crowded by noon with people eager to get back into the spirit of the Olympics - how could they even think about celebrating?

The people who came from all over the country and globe were not willing to give in to some pathetic attention-seeker. The gathering clouds were broken. Sunshine prevailed. Just long enough to dry off.

A new storm erupted during the second half of the games and a string of twisters threatened to blow out the symbolic flame.

Did brutal coach Bela force tiny and broken Kerri to vault with an injured ankle? Would Michelle, the lass from Ireland, lose her gold medals because of performance-enhancing drugs? Would Merlene tear the gold medal from around Gail’s neck, claiming the photo finish was in America’s favor? Would the U.S. boxers forgo their opponents in the ring for a shot at the unfair judges?

Each twister, threatening to touch ground, eventually fizzled.

Near the end I thought the sun would finally break through the clouds. But what would a good summer thunderstorm be without one final boom, one more spectacular flash of lightning?

Carl Lewis, that flash of lightning, decided he wanted to break the record for earning the most gold medals.

His coach, Erv Hunt, provided the boom. The relay team was already chosen and Carl was not on it. It was a matter of principle.

Carl should know something about the thrill of winning the gold. If he ran, someone else would not. Someone who went to practice and trained with the relay team.

The team took a silver medal. Erv Hunt deserved a gold. In a time when athletes’ egos need constant stroking, Hunt stood by his morals instead of someone else’s greed.

The storm began to dissipate; rain would not fall on the closing ceremonies.

With all the distractions of our modern age, it’s easy to lose sight of what the spirit of the Olympics is all about. In the end, it is about the athletes, amateur athletes in particular. It is about their struggles and disappointments, their victories and tears.

It was a privilege to watch the heroics that took place during the XXVI Olympiad. For those of us who stayed focused on the positives it was a pleasure, too.


The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Colleen Lippert Contributing writer

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