The Olympics are the ultimate sports smorgasbord, and nowhere in Atlanta is the buffet table stacked higher than in the Georgia World Congress Center, a convention facility so vast that it seems to span two time zones.
Clearly, the center, which sits at the heart of Atlanta's "Olympic Ring," does its part to support that "compact" label these Centennial Games have claimed for themselves. The lineup of sports contained therein ranges widely, from judo and wrestling to fencing and table tennis. Throw in team handball, weight lifting, and a portion of modern pentathlon, and you've got the busiest terminal of the Olympics.
In fact, finding your destination is a little like getting to your airport gate. One journeys down endless corridors, up and down escalators, past food carts, and even a restaurant with a tuxedoed piano player. Pictograms of the various sports point to the desired venue.
To explore the attractions within this center was to discover two worlds not often experienced by sports journalists. In this case, I dropped in on judo and weight lifting.
First stop, judo in Hall H. Judo was introduced to the Olympics by the Japanese in 1964, when they hosted the Games in Tokyo. The sport originated in Japan and to this day displays its cultural roots with ceremonial bowing, sash-waisted white judogis, and a court, as the mat is called.
In Atlanta, two square courts sit side by side on a serene-looking plateau. A referee, wearing a sports jacket and tie (if male), presides, with two similarly attired judges stationed in opposite corners. They sit at attention until the two entangled bodies crash at their feet, whereupon they grab their chairs and flee.
Treading on the spacious mat is not done casually, and when a Japanese judo athlete is injured, the trainer first removes his shoes before invading the space.
Like two honorable but fierce warriors, competitors (both male and female) go after each other, grabbing, pushing, pulling, and tripping. It's the ultimate in controlled mayhem. The contestants try to score an "ippon," the word used to describe four winning situations, one of which occurs when an opponent is thrown forcefully on his or her back. Another occurs when an opponent slaps the mat twice or cries "uncle," or in this case "maitta," which translates "I give up."
Venture over to the weight-lifting competition a couple of doors down, and there's a very distinct Mediterranean/East European flavor, with only one Chinese breaking up a leader board populated by Turks, Greeks, Hungarians, and Bulgarians. Turkey's Naim Suleymanoglu, the sport's Pocket Hercules, is going for the gold with the encouragement of an exuberant, flag-waving cheering section. His fans go bananas each time the little giant uses his fireplug legs to spark another lift.
"In body mechanics, he's probably as good as you'll ever get," says Lyn Jones, the national coaching director of US Weightlifting, of Suleymanoglu. The results support Jones's admiration. Suleymanoglu pulls out all the stops, setting an Olympic and world record by lifting a combined 335 kilograms (738-1/2 lbs.) in the two lifts, the snatch and the clearn-and-jerk.
Turkish backers celebrate the feat, dancing to cranked-up rock tunes on the venue's sound system and trying to catch American TV's eye with signs that read, "Naim Biggest Champion." No one in Hall E of the Georgia World Congress Center argues the point. Seeing, in this case, is believing.