On an idyllic morning in May, or a lush twilight in June, perhaps in the middle of an Iowa cornfield or along the edge of a Missouri riverbank, a proud American will carry the Olympic torch as it makes its way to Atlanta for the 1996 Olympic Games. For one kilometer, the torchbearer will be a small link in the 84-day, 15,000-mile relay that snakes from Los Angeles through 42 states. The poignant moment will be cheered by onlookers lining the route.

It could be a scene from a Norman Rockwell painting. But, this being the Olympic Games of 1996 in the United States, the frame of the picture is much wider, much more complicated, much less picturesque.

The torchbearer will have lots of company.

Each of the 10,000 chosen for the honor will be accompanied by an escort wearing a uniform emblazoned with "Coca-Cola" on the left breast and a big "C" -- for Champion sportswear -- on the left sleeve. An entourage of German BMW vehicles will flank the torchbearers. Motorola Inc. cellular phones and pagers will monitor the course.

And in the most proprietary indicator of Coca-Cola's interest in the Games, the company will select one-quarter of the torchbearers.

Coca-Cola logos and billboards will line the route; onlookers will be able to buy soft drinks; Coca-Cola celebrations will be held in towns along the way, before and after the torch passes; a sign touting Coca-Cola's campaign already hangs from the Seattle space needle and has been flashed in Times Square. The company has unveiled its television commercial, billboards and print advertisements so bottlers can use the campaigns along the torch trail.

Money from official Olympic sponsors will provide about 80 percent of the $1.58 billion needed to stage the Games this summer. Sponsorship of the Olympic torch relay is separate and provides a compelling example of the tight relationship between the Olympics and big business.

And as the torch relay's $20 million cost is being underwritten by a handful of blue chip companies, Coca-Cola is the preeminent sponsor, having paid $12 million for the right to be the relay's only "presenting sponsor."

Marketing experts say the torch's coast-to-coast route, beginning April 27 in Los Angeles and ending July 19 at the Opening Ceremonies in Atlanta, is an advertiser's dream, a continuous 84-day commercial affecting people on an emotional level that companies hope will cement a lifetime bond.

"There's nothing that can touch it," said M.J. Castelo, manager of sponsorships for Texaco.

Relay organizers planned the route strategically: The path comes within two hours of 90 percent of the U.S. population, assuring exposure to millions. The relay also will average three stops each day to be part of celebrations organized by communities along the route, assuring sponsors' exposure on local television and in newspapers. A juicy bonus will be being part of NBC's nightly torch relay updates, which will air during prime time. NBC bought the rights to televise the 1996 Olympics for $456 million.

Again, torch mappers have helped. It's not an accident that the relay will pass in front of some Fortune 500 headquarters, including Texaco, Coke and Sara Lee.

"My fervent hope is that occasionally NBC's camera features a Holiday Inn in the background," Holiday Inn spokesman Craig Smith said.

Champion spokeswoman Janet Shaner said the company is hoping its "C" on escorts' shirts will be visible on the NBC updates. "We want {the C} as big as possible," Shaner said.

Coca-Cola's relationship with the Olympics is well-established. The company emerged from the pack at the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary with its commercial featuring the "Coca-Cola World Chorus," 43 young people from 23 countries singing songs of unity -- and Coke.

Coca-Cola has been affiliated with the Olympic Games for the past 68 years, paying the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games an estimated $40 million for the right to be the exclusive nonalcoholic beverage sponsor of the 1996 Games, and paying NBC an additional $60 million to air its commercials during the Olympics. The soft drink is also tightly linked with Atlanta, where Coca-Cola is headquartered.

The company's $12 million commitment to the relay gives Coca-Cola the right to name 2,500 torchbearers. The company is bringing in torchbearers from 68 countries, with each country using its own selection methods. In the United States, torchbearer hopefuls can enter their names in Coca-Cola's "Share the Spirit: Who Would You Choose?" contest by submitting their name and describing why they are deserving of carrying the flame.

On the relay route, the soft drink company's presence will supersede all others. The soda giant has been assured the right to display the biggest sign on the relay and share with ACOG control of all torch relay merchandise -- pins, shirts, jackets and hats -- worth several million dollars.

The next echelon of companies sponsoring the torch relay cannot launch the splashy commercial campaigns that come with Coca-Cola's sponsorship rights. Texaco, for example, has a large gasoline promotion linked with the Games, but the promotion also includes a Coca-Cola purchase and the reward of an official Coca-Cola torch relay pin. (Pin trading is another area where Coca-Cola has established dominance. Since 1988, the company has set up a Pin Trading Center at Olympic sites.)

Coca-Cola's $12 million payment to ACOG for torch relay sponsorship covers the cost of the 10,000 torches and, according to Atlanta organizers, pays for the cost of feeding and moving the torch crew across the country. The company is leaving promotion on a local level to the bottlers, who will decide how much, where and when they will make people aware of the torch relay.

"This is about connecting with our consumers . . . making them feel better about their connection with Coca-Cola," said Brendan Harris, the company's torch relay director.

In addition to dollars, "Coke gets more visibility out of this than any other torch relay sponsor," said Robert Hollander, vice president of Atlanta Centennial Olympic Properties, the marketing arm of the Games.

BMW is next in line after Coca-Cola in sponsorship dollars at more than $1 million for supplying cars and motorcycles. Next is Holiday Inn, which is providing 15,000 room nights, amounting to about $1 million. Others spending more than $500,000 are Sara Lee for its Champion athletic wear; Motorola for radios, cell phones and pagers; Delta Air Lines for transportation; and United Way for providing volunteers. Toward the lower end are IBM, BellSouth Corp. and Texaco, each of which is spending several hundred thousand dollars to supply the torch relay.

Computer giant IBM is thinking about customer picnics and softball games. Holiday Inn is planning in-room torch videos. Texaco has route maps at its service stations, and Motorola is planning equipment displays. Nearly all will have hospitality events along the route. A BMW "signature car" will swoop into cities a day in advance for special public ceremonies. The town's leading citizens will sign the car, which will be painted with the relay's route.

Motorola sports marketing manager David Weisz said his team is working on "how we are going to get people to see Motorola on television" when they are settled in their living room recliner.

Is it worth it?

"Companies hope that when we think of the torch, we get a swell of pride that we will associate with the Olympics and with their brands," said Seth Matlins of ProServ, a Washington, D.C.-based sports marketing company.

The technique, sometimes known as "branding," worked for AT&T when it sponsored the 1984 relay for the Los Angeles Olympics. The telephone giant wanted a vehicle that would link it in the minds of consumers with reliable telephone service, an important message for the company since AT&T had spun off its seven local bell companies as part of its breakup that year. Next to every torchbearer was an AT&T escort, wearing the unmistakeable phone company logo across his or her chest. The company deemed it a perfect promotional tool.

"Of all the photos and footage I've seen from 1984, nearly all had the AT&T cadre runner," said Peter de Tagyos, who directs AT&T Olympic and corporate sponsorship. "Millions of people who took photographs now, when they are home, have photos that remind them we were involved in that."

For the 1984 Olympics, torch relay marketing was still in relative infancy. Although the trip spanned 84 days, it passed through 33 states and incorporated only 3,636 torchbearers. Another notable difference: Torchbearers were required to raise $3,000 to carry the torch for one kilometer.

In spite of the swarms of sponsors for the 1996 relay, Olympic organizers said they have made sure the relay will maintain its dignity.

Atlanta organizers will accompany the torch to make sure sponsors don't go over the top. The "look of the relay" -- a design of colors and logos -- will dominate the torch run and companies have been asked to conform their signs to those colors.

Coca-Cola spokesman Harris said, "If you're expecting to see everything painted red {Coca-Cola's color}, you're going to be disappointed."

But the companies still want to get major marketing impact. It all comes down to business, said several sponsors.

"I would be lying if I said our company went into it to carry the Olympic spirit," said Motorola's Weisz. "I look at every sponsorship for return on investment." CAPTION: Coca-Cola paid the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games $12 million to be the primary sponsor of the Olympic torch relay, an 84-day, 15,000-mile trek that passes through 42 states.