Put away your cynicism for just one night

The Cincinnati Enquirer

ATLANTA - Bruce Baumgartner has been to the mountaintop. He has stood atop the medals stand and seen the flag raised in his honor. He has felt his heart pounding beneath as the national anthem was played.

America's foremost freestyle wrestler has twice known the most glorious of Olympic moments, and yet he is still coming to grips with his own grandeur. The superlative superheavyweight, who has not lost a match to another American in 15 years, was genuinely humbled by the honor of carrying the flag into Friday's Opening Ceremony.

''I can only anticipate that it will be the highlight of my sporting career,'' Baumgartner said Friday afternoon. ''It's something I'll never forget.''

Golden moment invaluable

The Summer Games grow ever more commercial, professional and jaded. Downtown Atlanta looks like the place carnivals go to get cloned. Yet beneath its gaudy exterior, and beyond its suffocating security, the Olympics has a unique capacity to fill athletes with awe.

Bruce Baumgartner is 35 years old, and won his first gold medal in Los Angeles, in 1984. He told his wife that would be the end of it, but he has been unable to let go. An athlete need taste ambrosia only once to appreciate its flavor.

''I'm really not doing it to accumulate medals,'' he says. ''I enjoy the competition. I enjoy the preparation. And you know, at my age, every competition is kind of a bonus.''

Wrestling is among the least lucrative and unglamorous parts of the Olympic program, but it is a way to be known as the best in the world.

During the next two weeks, Baumgartner will attempt to become the fifth American athlete, and the first wrestler, to medal in four separate Summer Games.

Yet even if he should lose every match, he will always have Friday night for his memory book. Bruce Baumgartner will be able to tell his grandchildren he was once privileged to lead the home team into the Olympic Stadium.

What is such a moment worth? There are no medals for flag-bearing, and not much of a market for non-military marching. Yet if a man has a shred of sentiment, he is sure to be struck by the powerful symbolism and the sprawling stage. When the man with the mustache and the Sequoia-sized neck strode into the Olympic Stadium on Friday night, maybe three billion people were watching worldwide.

''I think any Olympic athlete who was put in that spot might be a little self-conscious,'' Baumgartner said. ''It's a great thrill participating in the Opening Ceremonies. You get an unbelievable rush, an unbelievable thrill. Thousands of people are cheering for you and your country. It takes your breath away.''

A affair to remember

Patriotism may be the last refuge of scoundrels, but it is the most potent selling point of the Olympics. Without it, the Games are a glorified track meet, a flea market on steroids, an exercise in excess.

All of those accusations may still be accurate, and yet the most seasoned and cynical athletes stand on the medals stand with their hearts in their throats.

''It feels like the whole world is standing still,'' said U.S. basketball star Teresa Edwards, who took the Olympic oath on behalf of all the athletes Friday night. ''And recognizing that you're the best in the world.''

Bruce Baumgartner has been around the block a few times. He is the toughest guy in a tough-guy sport, and the most recent recipient of the James E. Sullivan Award, bestowed annually on America's outstanding amateur athlete. Such a man is not easily impressed. But when he speaks of the Olympics, the sincerity drips off him like so many beads of sweat.

''When I first walked into Opening Ceremonies in 1984 was when I realized the magnitude of the Olympic Games,'' he said. ''To have all the different countries represented on the field at one time - that was a day I'll always remember as long as I live.''

Friday night was another. The guy with the 52-inch chest was puffed up a little bigger with pride.

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published July 20, 1996.