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From the archives | 1996

A vote for the Olympic experience

There is an entire Olympics out there that NBC can’t show you. No one can be everywhere, not even a network. No one can ingest everything an Olympics has to offer.

Did you see the Puerto Rican fans forming a conga line -- a long conga line -- at halftime of their ninth/10th-place basketball game against Argentina?

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Did you see Greco-Roman wrestler Derrick Waldroup announce his retirement from competition in the classic way, by leaving his empty shoes in the center of the mat and then taking a triumphant lap around the arena?

Did you see American badminton ace Kevin Han lose his first-round match because he was unable to cope with the DACE -- the Dreaded Air Conditioning Effect?

Did you see the South Korean fans cheering on their judo folk, their wrestlers and their table tennis stars while banging together their little plastic yellow bats known as bang mangis?

Did you hear Worcester’s own feisty 72-year-old Ralph Raymond, coach of the victorious US softball team, break into an on-key rendition of ``Unforgettable’’ when asked to ``give us a song’’ at the gold-medal press conference?

Did you hear the Gaelic-speaking Irish journalist launch into a lengthy question/comment to swimmer (and suspected hanky-pankier) Michelle Smith, in the middle of which he turned toward the Americans and spat out the words ``sour grapes’’?

Did you see and hear the four orange-clad Dutch fans (among the many hundreds) cheering on their volleyball team against Italy in the gold-medal match (eventually won by the Netherlands in five exhausting sets, the fifth being 17-15 after Italy was serving at 15-14 for the match) by doing the tomahawk chop?

Did you hear US assistant basketball coach Clem Haskins exclaim after watching 17-year-old Chinese center Wang Zhi-Zhi, ``How do you say, `Come to Minnesota,’ in Chinese?’’?

And most importantly . . .

Did you see the shoulder-to-shoulder mass of humanity enjoying the concerts and other attractions at Centennial Park on both Friday and Saturday last? Bomb, what bomb?

I didn’t think so.

As a former nonbeliever, I am here to tell you the following: The Olympics truly are the Greatest Show On Earth, and to have them in your backyard is a gift. I’m just a pup in this journalistic litter, with three Olympic notches on the belt, but it is clear to me that, properly done, the Olympics give back far more to a community than they take. Surely there have been enough examples of both the Hows (Barcelona) and How Not Tos (Montreal) for people to figure out the proper formula.

Are they a general pain in the butt? Do they disrupt the daily life of a city? Well, sure. Few cities on earth easily can absorb the influx of so many visitors with so many specific needs, and the ones that can are almost by definition not suitable to host the Olympics. I love New York, for example, but New York never should have a major anything because New York invariably will swallow up whatever it is and render it less significant than it really is. Final Fours and political conventions don’t belong in New York, and neither does an Olympics. On the other hand, imagine The World taking over Central Park . . .

The Olympics must be streamlined to some degree, and the Sydney organizers will be pressuring the International Olympic Committee to make sure that fewer competitors show up four years hence. Say they go from 10,500 to 10,000. The cut would be even bigger than that because with each couple of athletes there always seems to be a couple of guys in blazers hanging around.

The IOC is like our two major political parties in that it is constantly bombarded by special-interest groups. Take my sport. No, take my sport. We already have the quasi-lunacy of rhythmic gymnastics (is it the IOC’s fault that ``The Ed Sullivan Show’’ went off the air 25 years ago?) and now we must brace ourselves for snowboarding and curling in Nagano and (gulp) ballroom dancing in Sydney. What’s next? Ironing? Typing? Parking?

The Olympics are a phenomenal undertaking. The logistics are staggering, and it only begins with construction of a sports venue. Housing, food, transportation and communications are biggies, but there is much, much more, and the ultimate success of the Olympics depends on the spirit and capability of the volunteers, and this is something no Billy Payne can control. Security? So? Security is a fact of modern life. We must go on living. Security can be dealt with.

The Olympics I have seen galvanize the city and the region. It takes a couple of days, but before long people get into it. The locals start to like hearing the strange accents and seeing the colorful garb of the international visitors, who, in turn, latch onto each other as spiritual kin. Pin-swapping, shirt- and hat-selling, tall tale-swapping (``Did you hear what happened at the volleyball?’’ ``Yeah, well let me tell you about the little weightlifter . . .’’) become the norm. And if the locals are doing well (trust me when I say that Norway came to a stop), the air is crackling.

You may or may not know that for the past four years an entity known as the Boston Organizing Committee has been in existence. Its goal is to have the 2008 Olympics here. This being Boston, most people just roll their eyes.

The very idea of having an Olympics in Boston really is stupid. We are, after all, America’s leading Can’t Do city. While other cities, when presented with an idea, immediately say, ``OK, we are going to do it. How can we make it work?’’ (Phoenix springs to mind), the typical Boston/Massachusetts response to anything is, ``Can’t do that, can’t do that, can’t do that, and where’s mine?’’

The fact is there are four large American cities with the right combination of beauty and inherent resources to welcome an Olympics. There is Seattle, there is Chicago, there is San Francisco (another fractious locale) and there is, yes, Boston.

So we don’t have a stadium? You think maybe in 12 years we could figure out a way to get one? You feel the Toonerville Trolley known as the Green Line might be a wee bit inadequate? We’ve got 12 years to rectify that. Other than that, what? We’ve got the FleetCenter. We’ve got the Charles and Boston Harbor. We’ve got the ballpark, and, most of all, we’ve got our magnificent colleges, which could be utilized for soccer, water polo, boxing, judo and many others.

If custom prevails, the 2008 Olympics will be awarded in 2000 or 2001. Isn’t that long enough to do what should have been done a long time ago with our underutilized waterfront? Isn’t that long enough for even some of our slow-thinking (if you’ll pardon the expression) political leaders to join forces with our business movers and shakers to formulate a serious plan to showcase a completely logical and appropriate place to hold an Olympics?

People flocked to Atlanta, which, to be polite, is ugly and soulless. Atlanta could never be a Boston physically. An Olympics would rejuvenate Boston and guarantee it as a tourist destination for the next two or three centuries. An Olympics are worth fighting for.

Go ahead, laugh, but only if you’ve never been to an Olympics. Ask any friend or relative of yours who has. They know I’m right.

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