The National Sports Festival is giving the Olympic athletes an opening ceremony in the style to which they've become accustomed.
A crowd of 50,000 was present at Louisiana State's Tiger Stadium tonight for the official opening of the Festival, which features 138 Olympians, 48 of them medal winners in Los Angeles last summer.
The ceremonies were long-winded, beginning at 6:15 p.m. CDT and lasting until 10. While there was nothing as extravagant as David Wolper's Los Angeles Olympics production, a strong finish -- torch ceremony, fireworks and rock and roll show -- made up for the dull moments.
The entertainment included the usual birds, balloons, 1,000 aerobic dancers, the U.S. Army Golden Knights' eight-man parachuting team, and one slightly embarrassing moment when Gov. Edwin Edwards, currently under a 51-count indictment for racketeering, was booed during his welcoming speech.
The entrance of the 3,300 athletes, clad in sweatsuits despite the high Louisiana humidity, was traditional. Leading the procession carrying the American flag was Edwin Moses, the 1976 and 1984 gold medalist who holds the intermediate hurdles world and Olympic records.
"It was heaven," Moses said of his flag-bearing role. "I'm just glad the people in the stands and the athletes appreciated it. This is the first big event after the Olympic Games, and it's important.
"Nothing can compare to the Olympics . . . But this is big for the kids. If I was their age, a prospective Olympian, I'd be here, too."
The torch ceremony was a Who's Who of recent Olympic stars, including diver Greg Louganis, sprinter Valerie Brisco-Hooks and swimmer Steve Lundquist. Lundquist received the torch at a rostrum and lit two more, handing them to Brisco-Hooks and Louganis, who carried them to the top of a pyramid of stairs.
Although many events already are under way, most of the 34 Olympic and Pan American sports weren't scheduled to begin until Saturday. One of the more intriguing events is men's basketball. Bob Knight's gold medal-winning team, which included Patrick Ewing and a number of other NBA first-round draft picks, is gone and a new national team must be put together.
The Festival generally is regarded as an important steppingstone in the development of U.S. Olympic teams and four regional basketball squads showcase the freshman and sophomore collegiate talent. Competition begins Saturday night with the South team, coached by Alcorn State's Dave Whitney, against the West, under Stanford's Tom Davis. The North, coached by Larry Brown of Kansas, will meet the East under Lou Carnesecca of St. John's.
One member of the East team is 6-foot-10 Danny Ferry, the highly recruited DeMatha High School star who will be a freshman at Duke.
"It's good experience getting ready for college," Ferry said. "I learned I have to work a little with the weights. I was getting pushed around some under the boards."
Some of the more notable players are Danny Manning of Kansas, the 6-11 forward who was named Big Eight newcomer of the year, playing for the North; 6-9 forward Leonard Taylor of Cal-Berkeley, named the Pacific-10 Conference freshman of the year, playing for the West; 6-8 forward John Williams of Louisiana State, the Southeastern Conference freshman of the year, playing for the South.
Carnesecca recently returned from a playing tour of Europe with his St. John's team. He said European teams, and particularly the Soviet team, might be catching up to the usually dominant U.S. contigent. That makes the Festival a little more important than usual in a post-Olympic year.
"The importance of these games is for the committee to get a good view of the players' potential," Carnesecca said. " . . . Last year Bobby's club would have beaten the Soviets by 15 or 20 points. This group right now, I don't know. But give us a couple of years, keep the kids together, and we'll be okay."
Most of the featured Olympians here are in the track and field events, which willl be held at Southern University's A.W. Mumford Stadium.
Gold medalist Benita Fitzgerald Brown leads the field in the 100-meter hurdles. Brisco-Hooks, triple gold medalist in the 200 meters, 400 meters and the 4x400 relay, will run in the 400.
Florence Griffith, silver medalist, will run in the women's 200-meter dash and Kirk Baptiste, bronze medalist, will run in the men's 200. Mike Conley, silver medalist in the triple jump, will compete in the long jump.
Temperatures in the 90s, along with humidity of 48 percent, showed no signs of relenting so the USOC decided to abbreviate the marathon events. Both the men and women will run half-marathons of 13.1 miles and the long-distance walk events also have been shortened.
Few events were contested today in order to get ready for the opening ceremonies and Saturday's full schedule. Brian Boitano, the top-ranked U.S. men's figure skater, took a substantial lead over the rest of the field after the compulsory figures.
He had 87.60 points and received a perfect 7.0 ordinal score. In second place was James Cygan of Colorado Springs, followed by Scott Williams of Redondo Beach, Calif.
Debi Thomas, who was fifth in the world championships and second nationally behind Tiffany Chin, was in second place after the women's compulsories. She trailed 17-year-old Caryn Kadavy of Erie, Pa., who had 84.50 points to Thomas' 83.10. Jana Sjodin of Minneapolis was third with 78.50.
In the women's platform diving preliminaries, Olympic silver medalist Michele Mitchell led all qualifiers with a score of 410.58. Mitchell, known primarily as a platform diver, won the springboard competition late Thursday. Following her in the preliminaries were Wendy Williams, third-place finisher in the springboard, and 14-year-old Tara Justice of Independence, Ky., the youngest diver at the Festival.
"After competing late last night, I was just glad to survive the preliminaries," Mitchell said.