SWIMNEWS ONLINE: August 1996 Magazine Articles

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Karin Helmstaedt

Atlanta - It takes a while to digest an Olympic Games. Especially the biggest ones in history.

As with all things American, the Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta broke all the records. The numbers were impressive: 197 countries in attendance, 70,000 ACOG volunteers, 15,000 accredited journalists...and enough Coca-Cola to drown them all. These Olympics were the biggest peace-time event ever staged, and the overwhelming commercialism made them into a borderline gimmick.

Organizers did not endear themselves to the media, as the Games were marred by serious transportation problems and a faulty computer system. The much talked-about Info '96 system, designed by IBM to provide up-to-the-minute results and biographical information on the athletes, was an exercise in inadequacy, with results too slow in coming and days when access was simply impossible due to temporary shutdowns.

At the Georgia Tech Aquatic Centre, the word "bigger" took on its own meaning. The 14,000 spectators, mostly American, either carried or quenched the efforts of the 795 athletes. While many found the crowd to be a motivator, some found it hard to deal with.

Although the United States swimmers did benefit from the hometown support, the changing face of the sport was evident as the concept of "superpower" nations dwindled to nothing. The Chinese women, who were expected to walk away with fistfuls of medals, were mysteriously off, managing only one gold in seven days of competition. Finals had a distinctly international flavour as many of the smaller countries brought home medals. On the first night of competition 9 countries garnered the 12 possible medals and only 3 of them went to the U.S. First ever gold medals went to Belgium, South Africa, Costa Rica, Ireland and New Zealand. Australia had a disappointing meet, earning almost half of their medals on the last night of the meet.

There were many great moments, and the inevitable heartbreaks. In an emotional exchange, American distance legend Janet Evans passed the Olympic torch to former Olympic boxer Muhammad Ali during the Opening Ceremonies on July 19. But her reign in the pool was officially over as she failed to challenge in either of her events. On the other hand, Australia's Kieren Perkins, whom most had written off when he squeaked into the final of the men's 1500 freestyle, came back from lane 8 to win the event for the second consecutive time.

Due to the relatively slower times, some postulated that it was the cleanest Games ever. Performance-enhancing drugs cast a shadow over nearly every session, however, as triple gold-medalist Michelle Smith of Ireland dealt with relentless accusations of doping. After the swimming was over, two positive tests from Russian swimmers proved that the fight against drugs is more necessary than ever. But the overturning of those disqualifications by the Court of Arbitration for Sport left many wondering if all the Sturm und Drang of the past two years was worth the effort. The problem has become a priority in the sport, but the Olympic movement has other concerns.

Canadian swimmers had their most successful Games since Los Angeles in 1984. Head Coach Dave Johnson summed it up with a smile, "We're getting better...and it's about time."

Canadian Supporters in Atlanta, Pierre Lafontaine, Dean Boles, Andrew Cole, Vivian Firman and Mark Fellner
For larger 64k photo click on image. Photo © Marco Chiesa

Canada's best came through with some terrific swims and a total of ten Canadian records: individual medley stars Marianne Limpert of Fredericton and Curtis Myden of Calgary swam the races of their lives to secure a silver and two bronzes respectively for Canada. Joanne Malar of Hamilton, under extreme pressure after months of media hype, had one of the most difficult meets of her career! She finished out of the medals in both individual medleys but, to put things back into perspective, she did swim her best time to place fourth in the 200 IM. Her maturity and positive spirit in the face of certain disappointment were admirable.

Brampton's Stephen Clarke stood out with records in the sprint fly and freestyle, while the youngest team member Jessica Deglau was brilliant in the 200 butterfly. Rookies and veterans alike had a good team experience.

And finally, the swimming was over when tragedy struck-a pipe bomb exploded early Saturday morning (July 27) in Centennial Olympic Park, causing one death and injuring 111 people. A definite damper on what was, for many reasons, a memorable Games.

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