Olympic stadium gets first competitive test

 

THE STADIUM the will stage the athletic events and the main ceremonies of this summer's Olympic Games opened on Saturday with pomp, ceremony - and in the baking heat that organisers fervently wish will go away before the Games.

With the temperature in the upper-90s (mid-30s Celsius), 96 Atlanta citizens joined US Vice-president Al Gore to cut an enormous golden ribbon that had been draped across the infield of the $230 million arena.

As the strains of "The Impossible Dream" echoed around the stadium, some 40,000 Atlantans cheered as they saw the city's own Olympic dreams start to come true.

"We are here because we believed, we worked hard," said Andrew Young, a former US ambassador to the United Nations and Atlanta native who was one of the leading figures in winning the Olympic bid.

"I would like to convey my congratulations to all involved in the building of this very splendid stadium," said International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Juan Antonio Samaranch.

The heat was a major talking point, particularly as the mercury is expected to rise even higher as midsummer approaches and the Games open on July 19th. "It was hot out there today, but that's the way I like it," said Dennis Mitchell, winner of the men's 100 metres. But otherwise the stadium passed its first test with flying colours.

One of the few complaints of the day came from pole vault winner and multiple world record holder Sergei Bubka of Ukraine, who described the apparatus installed for his event as "high school standard."

"The referee said it was just for today because of a problem ... I hope that is true for the Olympics," said Bubka.

Despite the presence of international luminaries and top track and field stars, one of the biggest cheers of the day was reserved for Billy Payne, the president of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG), who almost singlehandedly started the process which has brought the Centennial Olympics to Atlanta.

"The Olympic flame is on its way to Atlanta . . . the people of Atlanta and Georgia are getting ready to greet it with open arms," Payne said. Gore told Payne, "You are the real hero of these Olympics. Atlanta, congratulations on a job well done. Atlanta is ready."

Nobody was in critical mood of the stadium on Saturday, but apart from the sweltering heat, all else lived up to expectations. The 85,000-seat stadium, which was around half-full, has good sight lines, comfortable seating and, in true American style, has many opportunities to buy food and drink.

The stadium, which has transformed one of the city's seediest districts, covers a 21-acre site, its canopy rising 141 feet above the field of play. The steel, concrete and brick structure has been built to reflect the style of old baseball parks. After the Olympics and the Paralympics, it is to be converted into the home park for the 1995 World Series champions Atlanta Braves.

Atlanta native Gwen Torrence, who could win three gold medals in her hometown Games, put on a dazzling display, too, winning the women's 100 metres in 10.85 seconds, the fastest time in the world this year.

"I was very pleased to run so well," said Torrence, the world 100-metre champion who will seek Olympic titles in the women's 100 and 200 metres and the 400-metre relay. "I haven't done any speed work this year, so I was a bit surprised."

Defending Olympic champion Gail Devers faded to sixth, running 11.20 seconds.

World record holders Bubka and Noureddine Morceli treated the half-full 83,000-seat Olympic stadium to the best outdoor performances ever on American soil in their specialities.

Bubka, from Ukraine, cleared 6.02 metres in the pole vault, then tried three times at a world record 6.15 metres.

Morceli, an Algerian, clocked 3 minutes, 50.86 seconds for the mile in a tune-up for what he hopes will be a season filled with Olympic gold and more world records. The previous best U.S. outdoor mile was 3:51.1 by Jim Ryun in 1967. Morceli was well outside his world record of 3:44.39, but he still won - comfortably, with Ireland's Mark Carroll - who will run in the 5,000m at the Olympics - in a highly creditable fourth place, ahead of Marcus O'Sullivan (fifth) and Niall Bruton (eighth).

British triple jump world record holder Jonathan Edwards overcame nerves and cramps to win his event in a season's best of 17.59 metres.