Olympic Festival Was A Big Hit In Oklahoma

Posted: August 01, 1989

NORMAN, Okla. — Long before the closing ceremonies drew a record crowd of 48,571, it had become obvious that the 1989 U.S. Olympic Festival rated A-OK with a lot of folks in Oklahoma.

The most recent edition of the nation's largest amateur sports event generated $3,028,043.50 - a ticket revenue record - and the 13-day attendance of 423,039 left the state's total second only to North Carolina's 464,423, set in 1987.

Like its most recent predecessors, the '89 Olympic Festival succeeded best in preparing athletes for the Olympic experience.

"The Olympic Festival has real value," said David Michanik, the Penn fencing coach. "Even in things like standing outside the stadium, waiting for the opening ceremonies and the experience of a lifetime. If you've gone through something like that before and know how long it takes, it helps make it all the less stressful."

That holds true, of course, whether the national governing bodies use the festival for their world-class athletes or for those who aspire to such status. The United States Olympic Committee has left those decisions to the individual sports federations, but officials have said they would like to see a greater number of recognizable, and thus marketable, athletes in future festival competition.

The event demonstrated again that Olympic Festivals probably work best in a places such as Oklahoma, where grass-roots parochial pride is hardly uncommon, especially on the occasion of the state's 100th birthday.

The festival's 11,000 green-shirted volunteers provided a folksy fellowship, and the pride they took from the experience was almost visible when they marched in as a group during Sunday's closing ceremonies.

"The spiritual impact of this is one of the most important things to ever take place in this state," said executive director Clay Bennett.

A few other observations:

* Women probably played a more prominent role in the 1989 festival than in any that preceded it.

Most notable among their number were a group of gymnasts known as ''Karolyi's Kids" for their famous coach, Bela Karolyi, a Romanian expatriate.

"It's a kindergarten now," Karolyi said of the girls he trains in Houston, "but this kindergarten is going to the Olympics in 1992, I promise you."

Kim Zmeskal and Erika Stokes, a pair of 13-year-olds, won the gold and silver medals, respectively, in the all-around competition. Zmeskal picked up another gold in the floor exercise, and silvers in the balance beam and the vault, and Stokes won the gold on the beam.

On the festival's final day, three of the four gold medals and eight of the 12 total medals awarded for individual competition were taken by Karolyi's Kids.

"These little ones are tigers," said Karolyi. "They have nothing. They are hungry. They want to go forward. They want to eat people. They want to beat everybody around.

"We are so fortunate," he added, "because all these kids in '92 are going to be 15 1/2 or 16," which Karolyi says is the optimum age for a female gymnast.

No less impressive was Karyn Marshall, 33, a 215-pound Wall Street

financial analyst who can lift 503 pounds.

Wendy Lucero, 24, the Denver Olympian and gold-medal winner in three-meter springboard diving, also was one of the event's outstanding performers.

Lucero revealed that before she found a sponsor - the result of a story that appeared in the Denver Post - she had planned to quit her sport after the national championships this month in Raleigh, N.C.

"Now I'm in it, if I stay strong and healthy, until 1992," said Lucero.

* Although the majority of festival athletes have yet to reach world-class potetial, some of the big names were on hand, and they delivered.

None, of course, did it better than Hollis Conway, 22, the devastating high-jumper from Louisiana who raised his American record to 7 feet, 10 inches, one day after Cuba's Javier Sotomayor became the first man in history to jump 8 feet.

The two jumpers will square off Saturday in Los Angeles, but Conway isn't terribly optimistic.

"All the times he beat me in Europe this summer, he was jumping 7-9, and that was my (personal record)," Conway said.

The ice hockey federation assembled the collegians who will be the core of the 1992 Olympic team, and cycling and swimming sent their top juniors.

But most of the divers, wrestlers, fencers, weightlifters, archers, paddlers and shooters competed in the Olympic Games last year, and the world teams for boxing and wrestling were determined by Olympic Festival competition.

* In addition to women's weightlifting, bowling, badminton and racquetball made their festival debut to further crowd the Olympic sports calendar.

"We are now to the point of asking, 'How large does the festival get in terms of numbers of sports?' " said Don Porter, chairman of the USOC Olympic Festival Committee. "My feeling is that we should have as many sports as the organizing committee can properly handle and accommodate. I think the opportunity for those sports at this festival was very good, but there is a problem, and I hope our committee will be looking at that situation when we meet."

One sport on the endangered list: rhythmic gymnastics.

* Next year's festival will be held in Minneapolis and will wind up five days before the start of the Goodwill Games. The 1991 festival in Los Angeles, even through it will be a tuneup for the Pan American Games, may prove a real test for the festival and the volunteer force that has made it a municipal achievement.

There are those who already are concerned that the festival will receive little attention in Los Angeles, and that the laid-back residents of the West will never come close to the folksiness of North Carolina or Oklahoma.

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