A vision has mutated into a spectacle. Baron Pierre de Coubertin's notion of the modern Olympics, which resulted in the first quadrennial celebration of sporting excellence in 1896 in Athens, now beckons athletes from all corners of the globe. A resplendent display of athletic skills and marketing savvy has already been triggered off in Atlanta. Participating nations are out to leave a lasting impact on the course of the 1996 Olympics. And so are the organisers and corporate sponsors. The transformed Coke city is choking with the thousands of athletes, officials and spectators here for a piece of the action. And a slice of history.
Indians have got into the act as well. Predictably, though, the nation's efforts are of a different kind and largely off the field. In keeping with its promise, the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) has brought along a large contingent, including those not cleared by the Sports Ministry. But even larger is IOA's list of Indians who will enjoy hospitality during the Games. Among the IOA's guests is Tiny Lingtsang, a former JCT public relations manager. The list also features three members of one Soni family who are unknown in sports circles. A former Delhi hockey and athletics coach, based in Germany for the last 20 years, is the IOA's representative at the meetings of an international federation. And, several other Indians have been entered as guests of the organising committee.
On the other hand, there are the 40-odd Indian sportspersons who do not feature in the list of the distinguished. The last batch of 23 Indian participants will never forget the troubles they faced in reaching Atlanta on July 15. Till they reached John F. Kennedy Airport, they did not know that they had to change to La Guardia airport to take the onward flight to Atlanta. Amidst heavy rainfall, the athletes moved around aimlessly, dragging their luggage. And the problems of these sportspersons did not end there. Air India refused to arrange for transport and the Indian sports officials reluctantly engaged taxis, hoping that the sum spent would be reimbursed by IOA. And this, at a time when IOA has claimed that it is not dependent on the Government any more because of the massive commercial assistance that has come its way as sponsorships in the last three to four months.
Without question, commercial sponsorship has not made the lives of Indian participants comfortable. But it has created a new concept of the Olympics itself. Though the city's suburbs are substantially inhabited by national and international guests, very few are really interested in the Games. In an informal chat during a journey in the local underground, several Americans feigned ignorance when asked about track star Michael Johnson. But a majority in the crowded train knew the names of various sponsors. "For us, it is only a carnival. We have nothing to do with the Games," said Rosemary Jonathan, a business administration student. Clearly, the warmth and spirit associated with the Games are missing.
In Atlanta, what's most visible is a corporate warfare that has overshadowed news from the tennis courts. Pete Sampras and Ste-ffi Graf's withdrawal from the competition has upset the entire schedule without making any discernible impact on the Olympic city which seems obsessed with the imaginative Nike campaign.
Then, the problems of high humidity and heat have created problems for the horses. The technical delegate of the International Equestrian Federation has shocked the organisers by announcing that the three-day event may be cancelled if the heat persists.
Within the stadia, there are sporting displays of the highest order. Outside, most seem uninterested in the thrills, spills and high jinks, savouring a carnival with a conviction: Just Do It.