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 breaststroke.
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.