Commentary: Looking For Magic In `The Coke Olympics'

Runner Joan Nesbit, 34, sister-in-law of BUSINESS WEEK Detroit Bureau Manager Katie Kerwin, has competed four times in the U.S. Olympic Trials. After she missed qualifying for the 1992 Barcelona Games by one place, she had a baby and was hired as a track coach at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Late last year, she decided to give it one more shot. On June 21, a hot, muggy night in Atlanta, Nesbit qualified for the first time. Her report:

As I head down to the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games to run the women's 10,000 meters in Atlanta, I have mixed emotions. Rather like the Kellogg's Frosted Mini-Wheats commercial, the kid in me wants to shout, "Yippee! It's the Olympics," while the adult in me grumbles, "It's not the same."

Much has changed since the first modern Olympics were held 100 years ago. In 1896, we had Athens; in 1936, there was Berlin; in 1976, Montreal. Just the names evoke the conflict, pageantry, and elegance of sport that I associate with the games. And now in 1996, we have what I call "the Coke Olympics."

TASTEFUL TRINKETS? Atlanta isn't hosting these games, Corporate America is. The athletes and fans won't be trading country pins, they'll be trading company pins: Coke, BellSouth, and IBM. I can't totally knock corporate support (I'm sponsored by New Balance Inc.), but the commercialism in Atlanta is overwhelming.

How overwhelming? In the "sundries bag" I received as an Olympian after the trials last month, I expected to see a few U.S. track-and-field T-shirts, perhaps a throwaway camera. Instead, I unloaded an unbelievable haul of corporate paraphernalia. There was even a blow-dryer supplied by Conair Corp., emblazoned with stars and stripes.

I suspect athletes in earlier Olympic Games got a few nice souvenirs. And I believe they also got free access to the track stadium on nights when they weren't competing. I know they did in 1964, when unknown U.S. runner Billy Mills pulled the upset of the century in winning the men's 10,000 meters, because I've read the glorious accounts given by his teammates in attendance.

Such team support will be hard to come by at these games: Athletes get no tickets to other events. I was given just two tickets to track and field on the nights I compete. One will go to my husband and one to my mom. "It's a good thing you only have one parent left," my mother teased. VIPs get most of the best seats using $10,000 passes provided by companies, while many true fans can't afford to watch--except, of course, on TV, where corporate ads are incessant.

Still, the kid in me wants to believe there's some magic left in the Olympics. I'm excited to march in my first-ever opening ceremony. I look forward to eating meals with athletes from other nations in the Olympic Village.

And I'll admit that my iron cynicism melted when team chaplain Madeline Manning-Mimms, a gold medalist in track three decades ago, sang a gospel tune to the U.S. track-and-field team shortly before we flew to Atlanta. "May the footprints that we leave lead them to believe," she sang. "And may all who come behind us find us faithful." I'd like to remember my Olympic Games that way. I just hope the Coke jingles don't drown out that refrain.

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