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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

AND THE SPIRIT LIVES ON

By Jose Manuel Tesoro


ASIA'S OLYMPIC CONTENDERS ARE back home -- some to a a conquering warrior's welcome, others to muse bitterly over what might have been. On balance, the region failed to do as well as it had hoped in Atlanta. Some favorites lived up to their reputation, but many more disappointed themselves and their admirers. Through it all -- and despite criticism of the way the Games were run -- the Olympic ideal prevailed.

What will the Centennial Summer Games be remembered for? Possibly not as the time American track-and-field star Carl Lewis won an astonishing ninth gold medal. Nor maybe as the year in which Michael Johnson ran faster than any human ever before. They may not even be thought of as the Games plagued by a crude kind of terrorism, in which a homemade pipe bomb killed two people and injured over 100.

No, the Atlanta Olympics are likely to go down in history as the Grumpy Games -- the ones in which just about everyone complained. Organizational oversights, turtle-paced traffic and punishing heat and humidity left competitors and spectators lost, late and bothered. International TV audiences grumbled that official broadcaster NBC paid too little attention to non-Americans. Corporate sponsors complained that the Atlanta organizers had diluted their deals. And visiting media moaned about the kitsch and commercialism that, they said, threatened the Olympic spirit.

Even the International Olympic Committee damned the Games with faint praise. At the Aug. 4 closing ceremony, IOC head Juan Antonio Samaranch withheld the lauds he bestowed on Los Angeles in 1984, Seoul in 1988 and Barcelona in 1992, each of which he had called "the most successful ever."

For all that, the Atlanta Games were, as Samaranch himself allowed, "most exceptional." They were, after all, the largest and perhaps most ambitious ever held. The city hosted close to 11,000 competitors and 5,000 coaches and officials from 197 countries, not to mention some 2 million tourists. In competition, many small countries that had once considered Olympic victories only a dream won their first gold medals.

And, as expected, the global sports powers turned in potent performances. The U.S. topped the rankings with 101 medals -- 44 of them gold -- in its best showing in non-boycotted Games since Mexico City in 1968. Russia (26 gold) and Germany (20) came in a distant second and third. China, now Asia's undisputed sports giant, was fourth, with 16 gold, 22 silver and 12 bronze. With athletes such as the splashless diver Fu Mingxia, track star Wang Junxia and gymnast Li Xiaoshuang, it had little difficulty matching its gold tally in Barcelona four years ago, though this time it came in with four bronzes fewer.

But the predestined victories by the medal-winning machines earned less admiration than the achievements of athletes who went to Atlanta without the backing of multi-million-dollar training funds or national sports factories. The medals they won shone more brightly for all the emotion invested in them by their compatriots.

Hong Kong exulted in its first gold medalist: Lee Lai Shan, a sailboarder. Known affectionately as San San, the ever-smiling 25-year-old took top spot in the Mistral class windsurfing competition. It was Hong Kong's first and last medal of any hue as a British territory -- and, as wits were quick to point out, it was also as many golds as Britain picked up in Atlanta. After its return to China next year, Hong Kong will compete as part of China, but under a Special Administrative Region flag. Said San San: "It's sad in a way. But as long as the Hong Kong flag, whatever its color, is raised in the future, I will be happy."

Happy and more must have been what Somluck Kamsing was feeling when he won Thailand's first gold medal since it began participating in the Olympics in 1952. Though four Thai boxers punched their way into the quarterfinals, only the 25-year-old featherweight went on to the finals. There, he drubbed Bulgaria's Serafim Todorov to take the coveted medal, which he promptly dedicated to King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Boxing took another Southeast Asian country close to its first Olympic gold. But another Bulgarian, Daniel Petrov Bojilov, snatched the light-flyweight medal away from the Philippines' Mansueto Velasco. Still, the 22-year-old put in the best performance by a Filipino in 32 years and renewed hope for greater glories to come. "Our campaign for an Olympic gold medal does not end in Atlanta," declared Manuel Lopez, the country's Amateur Boxing Association president.

For India, a nation of almost a billion people, a single bronze medal was a mediocre harvest -- but still cause for celebration. Leander Adrian Paes, a 23-year-old junior member of the national tennis team, gave India its first individual Olympic medal in over four decades. Unsurprisingly, he lost his semifinal match to U.S. star Andre Agassi, who went on to take the gold, but defeated Fernando Meligeni of Brazil in the play-off for the bronze. The Calcutta native has the Olympics in his blood; his father, Vace Paes, won gold in the Indian hockey team in 1976.

Taiwan wrested a single silver medal in scenes fraught with political drama. Its table tennis champion, Chen Jing, faced off against China's Deng Yaping in the women's singles finals. Chen had won a gold medal for China at the 1988 Seoul Games before defecting to Taiwan three years later, so the match was charged with more than just athletic rivalry. Trouble broke out in the stands when two Taiwan fans were arrested after unfurling Nationalist flags. After Chen lost two games to three, her mainland rival thanked the Communist Party and told reporters she would never leave China as Chen had. Said Chen: "I hope people in Taiwan can now identify with me and not see me as an outsider."

Singaporeans expected little and achieved less. British-born Yvonne Dan-son placed in the top 30 in the women's marathon, but there was not much else to comfort the team of 14. The biggest disappointment was top swimmer Joscelin Yeo, 17, who finished well out of contention in the 100 meters butterfly. Said Woon Sui Kut, of the Sing-apore Amateur Swimming Association: "Our team did badly. We don't know why. The only excuse could be that the whole occasion overwhelmed them. But we're not downhearted."

Malaysia picked up its first silver medal ever when Cheah Soon Kit and Yap Kim Hock took the runners-up spot in the men's badminton doubles. In a fiercely contested final, they were pipped by the Indonesian pairing of Ricky Subagdja and Rexy Mainaky. But, outside badminton, the Malaysians performed as disappointingly as many had feared. Commented Sports Minister Muhyiddin Yassin: "I expected them to show at least some consistency in their performances, but they failed to meet their respective targets in Atlanta." The most obvious exception was Annastasia Karen Raj, who sliced two minutes off the national record in the 10-km walk.

One of the biggest shocks of the Games came when South Korean Lee Bong Ju came galloping into the Olympic Stadium to take the silver medal in the marathon. So unexpected was his surge from the pack that NBC, which had prepared material on all the hopefuls, had not one line on him. Had they done their homework, they might have discovered the 26-year-old had barely slept the night before because of faulty fire alarms.

Overall, the Koreans left Atlanta disappointed by their tally of just seven gold medals, five fewer than in Barcelona. But a measure of consolation came from Bang Soo Hyun -- known as the "angel of the court" -- in women's badminton. The 24-year-old scored a double victory over Indonesia, knocking out defending champion Susi Susanti in the semifinals and then sweeping aside Mia Audina, 16, in the final. Atlanta proved a painful experience for the Indonesian badminton squad, which took both singles golds in Barcelona and earlier this year dominated the unofficial world championships, the Thomas and Uber cups. Sports commentator M.F. Siregar observed: "There was a feeling that the Olympic medals were already in the hand. That was a vital mistake."

Japan, once the only Asian nation to hear its national anthem played at the Olympics, continued its slide down the medals table. After finishing 17th in Barcelona, it ended 23rd this time, with the same number of golds (three) but eight fewer medals in total. Most crushing: For the first time in any post-World War II Olympics, the Japanese failed to win any events in gymnastics -- a competition in which it had previously taken home 86 medals. Still, fans had ample opportunity to twirl their rattles when their football team pulled off a surprise victory over the mighty Brazilians. The team returned home without medals -- but to a heroes' welcome.

That is precisely the kind of greeting that Sydney, the next Summer Olympics host, plans for its opening ceremonies in 2000. The city certainly has more modest ambitions than Atlanta. It plans to cap the number of competitors at 10,000 -- and to avoid the garage sale atmosphere of the Centennial Games.

The Sydney organizers undoubtedly learned lessons from Atlanta. So, too, did the competitors. The losers will swallow their bitterness. The winners will thank their good fortune. And many will dream of podiums, anthems and glory four years from now.

-- With reporting from Bangkok, Beijing, Hong Kong, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Seoul, Singapore, Taipei and Tokyo


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