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A Curtain Call in Atlanta

By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Aug. 5, 1996

ATLANTA, Aug. 4— Tonight, the Closing Ceremonies for the 1996 Summer Olympics began with the traditional awarding of the medals in the men’s marathon, and it was a fitting moment for an Olympics that provided a bigger world stage for a far more diverse collection of athletes than any in history. Josia Thugwane, 25, stood at the center of the medal platform, the first black South African in Olympic history to win a gold medal.

Thugwane’s triumph came on a day when boxer Paea Wolfgramm won a silver medal for Tonga, a nation so overwhelmed by the prospect of any medal—Tonga never had won one—that hordes of his countrymen fasted one day this week to show Wolfgramm their support. Saturday night, inside this same Olympic Stadium, Venuste Niyongabo nearly wept as he listened to the anthem for his nation, Burundi, which managed to send its first delegation to the Games despite the terrible conflict between the Hutus and Tutsis raging back home.

And, early this evening, the final gold medal of these Games was won by the U.S. women’s basketball team, capping an Olympics in which the Americans—led by a long parade of successful women—finished with 101 medals, the most of any of the record 197 nations in attendance.

"For one hundred years, the Olympic Games have inspired great dreams," Juan Antonio Samaranch, the president of the International Olympic Committee, said in his farewell address tonight. "Today, the dream has come true for Atlanta, which will be forever an Olympic city. It has come true for an absolute record number of athletes and spectators, who have enjoyed the fabulous competitions."

These Olympics brought nearly 11,000 athletes—and millions of visitors from around the world—to this city, which has, at times, struggled with the burden of their massive presence. Although Samaranch was nothing but complimentary tonight, he notably failed to refer to these Games as "the greatest in Olympic history"—a phrase that has become routine in his Closing Ceremonies speeches. And, earlier in the day, Samaranch paused to speculate on the rampant commercialism that has marked this Olympic experience, and, at times, almost seemed to dwarf the athletes themselves.

"We need commercialism," Samaranch said, "we need money to organize the Games, but commercialism must not run the Games."

Uniquely and unabashedly American, these Olympics have most often been described as an overgrown state fair, a hodgepodge of vendors and oversize corporate logos providing the visual backdrop for some of the most stirring athletic moments in Olympic history. They have been derided for jingoism, with American athletic officials confronting Ireland’s Michelle Smith with loud—and unsupported—accusations of steroid use after her stunning successes in women’s swimming, and countless crowds using raucous chants of "U-S-A! U-S-A!" to drown out support for foreign athletes.

Sadly, though, these Games may be best remembered for one terrible moment of terrorism, and for the spirit through which all involved—athletes, Atlantans, visitors, officials—rebounded in the aftermath. In the early morning hours of July 27, a bomb exploded in Centennial Olympic Park—the centerpiece of the Olympic celebration—killing two and injuring more than 100 others.

Tonight, while Centennial Park played host to one final music celebration on the other end of downtown Atlanta, Samaranch called for an emotional moment of silence in memory of that bomb’s victims, and the 11 Israeli athletes who were killed in an act of terrorism during the 1972 Munich Games. It was the first official IOC recognition of the Munich tragedy since 1972.

Afterward, Stevie Wonder sang the John Lennon song "Imagine" as the crowd of more than 80,000 swayed in the darkness.

"While we will always remember in our hearts the loss," said Billy Payne, the president of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, "the reclaiming of our city, the defiance the entire Olympic family showed, is a more powerful story that will ultimately be the way these Games are remembered."

Muhammad Ali opened the Games 16 days ago, when he stood at the base of the tower leading to the Olympic cauldron with the torch in his hand, ready to light the Olympic flame. Tonight, after a series of musical tributes—ones that included marching bands and mountain bikers, Creole dance music and the powerful, rhytmic voice of Gloria Estefan—that flame was extinguished and the Olympic flag was passed to Sydney, host of the 2000 Games.

In between, though, many faces commanded the spotlight. There was Kerri Strug, the American gymnast, getting carried to the medal stand to receive the gold with her leg wrapped in bandages and her joyous teammates at her side. Michael Johnson racing to a world record in the 200 meters—and an unprecedented double victory in the men’s 200 and 400—in a pair of flashy gold shoes. Carl Lewis capping his brilliant career with a gold medal in the men’s long jump, his ninth Olympic gold.

Mixed in with those headliners, though, were the Thugwanes and the Wolfgramms; the American women who came here to play softball for the first time in Olympic history and captured the love of a city—Columbus, Ga., home of Golden Park—and the coveted gold; and the fans from Nigeria, who celebrated in the streets of Athens, Ga., Friday night after their men’s soccer team beat Argentina and made Nigeria the first African nation to win any international soccer competition.

In all, a record 79 nations won medals (13 more than in Barcelona), with a record 53 taking at least one gold. And the medal count—once a fierce Cold War battle between the United States and the Soviet Union—held a different meaning, the once-powerful Soviet bloc represented here by Russia and eight former republics, each of which competed under its own flag. The Russians won 63 medals (which put them third, behind Germany with 65) and the republics—Ukraine (23 medals), Belarus (15), Kazakhstan (11), Armenia (2), Georgia (2), Uzbekistan (2), Moldova (2) and Azerbaijan (1)—won 58. Of course, by competing as nine separate entities, the former Soviet republics were able to enter hundreds more athletes in the Games than they would have had they competed as a unit.

The Americans finished with 44 golds, 32 silver and 25 bronze, a smaller total than at the 1992 Olympics (where they won 108), but not a disappointing one.

"We are behind Barcelona, but when you have more than 70 nations winning medals—we no longer should think that we should dominate," said USOC President LeRoy T. Walker.

An American—Michael Johnson—carried the Olympic flag onto the infield for the close of the Olympics tonight, but it was the parade of flags from the 197 participatory nations that brought home the scope of these Games. Leander Paes carried the flag for India, which received its first medal since 1980 when Paes won a bronze in men’s tennis on Saturday. Marie-Jose Perec marched for France, her double-gold medal performance in the women’s 200 and 400 perhaps overshadowed by Johnson here in the States, but not in her nation.

And Wolfgramm, who marched into Olympic Stadium 16 days ago as Tonga’s flagbearer, waved his nation’s banner again—this time as one of hundreds of new Olympic heroes.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post

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