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A Week of Magic, Mayhem

Olympics' first days were full of challenges, triumphs, and upsets

Bill Toomey, who once prevailed in a dramatic two-day decathlon in Mexico City's thin air, says the essence of athletic excellence as called forth in Olympic competition lies in timing. Championship performance, he believes, comes in sports, as in life, from gathering oneself at the moment of greatest trial, not of greatest convenience.

During the first week of the Centennial Games many athletes did just that. And after Saturday's early-morning, pipe-bomb explosion in Centennial Olympic Park spectators, athletes, and officials displayed the heart of champions, refusing to let the cowardly act shut down the Games, or even delay them. The Olympians showed up the next morning, not callously or uncautiously, but to celebrate life and higher manifestations of human endeavor. Taking a cue from Atlanta's symbol, the phoenix - which was featured in the opening ceremony - the Olympics rose up, and pressed on.

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The opening ceremony's highlights were threefold: a huge, lantern-like, silhouette show of classical athletic figures; the parade of 10,000 athletes from 197 nations; and the appearance of a physically challenged but unbowed Muhammad Ali as the final torchbearer.

Early in the competition, two women moved unexpectedly into the limelight: American gymnast Kerri Strug and Irish swimmer Michelle Smith.

In the weeks prior to the Games, Strug had been virtually ignored as a bit player in the US gymnastics camp. But in the final rotation of the team competition, she courageously ignored an injured ankle to nail a vault, which caused her to drop to the mat after hanging onto the landing.

Strug's gallant effort in the team event, it turned out, wasn't necessary to secure the gold, a first for the American women, but she thought it was. Her act of bravery, therefore, went immediatly into the Atlanta Olympic scrapbook. It also kept her out of the all-around competition, in which Ukraine's Lilia Podkopayeva won the gold

Michelle Smith's swimming triumphs,were met, at best, with ambivalence. In a sport grown sensitive to drug use, her vast time improvement in the 400-meter individual medley caused uneasiness on the pool deck. She tested clean, however, and attributed the performance leap to new training practices. Smith went on to secure two more golds and a bronze in the 200-meter butterfly.

The overarching stories at Georgia Tech's Aquatic Center were 1) the strong showing by the Americans, 2) the generally below-par results of the Australians, and 3) the virtual submergance of the Chinese women, who had mopped up at the world championships two years ago. The intervening purge of drug abusers from their team had left questions about what to expect at these Olympics.

Few anticipated the US's impressive showing, which repeatedly placed Americans atop the medals podium. The theme going in was that the swimming world had caught up to, if not surpassed, the star-spangled aqua brigade. Yet the glory was restored, with 13 golds and 26 medals overall. And lo and behold, the star was not US grand dame Janet Evans, who called it quits after coming away empty, but bubbly Amy Van Dyken, who will take home two individual golds and two in relay events.

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Americans were expected to benefit from the home-field advantage in many corners of the Olympic landscape, including the Ocoee River in Tennessee for whitewater kayaking; Savannah, Ga., for yachting; and Miami and Washington for soccer.

Perhaps the most jolting result of these Olympics was Australia prevailing over the US in a tense women's softball battle in Columbus, Ga. The US team, a powerhouse that had only lost once in its previous 116 games since 1986, fell to the Australians, 2-1, in preliminary play, but not until Joanne Brown broke up Lisa Fernandez's no-hitter with a two-run, two-out homer in the bottom of the tenth. It was the only fair ball the Aussies hit all day. But the US regained the momentum Saturday, when it beat China 3-2 and again became the gold-medal favorite.

In the old American standby of basketball, the men's Dream Team was unbowed and marching inevitably, it would seem, toward the gold.

On another front, two "giants" of these Games: Russian heavyweight Greco-Roman wrestler Aleksandr Karelin and pint-size Turkish weightlifter Naim Suleymanoglu, each won his third straight gold medal. Karelin competed in the final against American Matt Ghaffari. Ghaffari lost 1-0 on an early takedown, and tearfully collected the silver medal. Suleymanoglu pulled out all the stops to overcome Greek rival Valerios Leonidis, reaching down through his fireplug thighs to produce a world record, two-lift total of 738 pounds - not bad for a 141-pound dynamo.

Belarus's Vitaly Scherbo, however, was not able to find his 1992 form in the men's all-around gymnastics competition, which carried him to six gold medals at Barcelona. He placed third behind China's Li Xiaoshuang and Russia's Alexei Nemov.

Sunday evening the focus was on the track at Olympic Stadium, where the "fastest human" title went on the line in the men's 100-meter dash. Altogether there were three false starts, two charged to defending Olympic champion Linford Christie of Britain, who was disqualified before the race began. Canada's Donovan Bailey used his smooth long strides to win the gold over Namibia's Frankie Fredericks and Trinidad and Tobago's Ato Boldon in a world-record time of 9.84 seconds.

The women also decided their 100-meter champion. Gail Devers of the US took the gold, as she had in 1992, edging out Jamaica's Merlene Ottey and Atlanta native Gwen Torrence.

Track-and-field events continue as the Games head toward their conclusion next Sunday. American sprinter Michael Johnson's quest to become the first man to win both the 200- and 400-meter races in the same Olympics will be closely watched, as will Dan O'Brien's attempt to underline his mastery of multiple athletic skills in the decathlon. Team competitions in baseball, volleyball, basketball, and soccer will soon move into their medal rounds, with the gold-medal women's basketball game Sunday night serving as the final athletic act of the modern Olympics' first century.

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