The headline in the Seoul Olympian, a colorful tabloid published by the Seoul Olympic Organizing Committee for the next three weeks, posed a startling question the other day: "Can Fallen Giant Revive Past Glory?"
There was no question who the "fallen giant" was. The United States Olympic team, a collection of more than 600 boxers and swimmers and runners and so many others, has suddenly become the preoccupation of many observers who have come to this city for the 1988 Summer Olympics, which will begin with Saturday morning's opening ceremonies in Olympic Stadium.U.S. athletes and journalists have been asked over and over how many medals the United States will win. Many people want to know if the United States will finish second or third in the unofficial medal count.
The Soviet Union will be No. 1; there's little doubt about that. But will the United States or East Germany, about the size of the state of Virginia with the population of the state of New York, come in second?
And if the United States is third, will that be a disappointment?
To all this, U.S. athletes and officials shrug their shoulders and roll their eyes, as if to say, "Who cares?"
"I've got to say I'm tired of being asked if I think we'll win a medal or reading that we won't," gymnast Wes Suter of Reston, Va., said in the Olympic Village about the chances of the men's gymnastics team. "Let's just see what happens."
U.S. Olympic Committee spokesman Mike Moran chuckled over the "fallen giant" headline.
"If that's what they think, we'll be the biggest upset of the Olympics," he said.
The last time the United States won more medals than any other nation at a Summer Olympics, other than the boycotted 1984 Los Angeles Games, was 20 years ago, in 1968 in Mexico City. Since then, the Soviets have soundly defeated everyone in total medals won, and the East Germans even passed the United States for second in gold medals at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.
Few if any Americans harbor any thoughts about passing the Soviets, and many know the East Germans could outdo them for second place in overall medals won. In fact, most wonder what the fuss is all about.
The talk about medals to be won and lost began when Marat Gramov, the Soviet chief of mission at the Olympics, told a Japanese newspaper that his athletes "will win the (mythical) championship by taking more than 50 gold medals of the total 237."
Bob Condron, another USOC spokesman, responded, "That does not leave too many for the U.S. team or the others."
In reality, the United States should do quite well here. Track and field and swimming traditionally have accounted for about 50 percent of all U.S. medals, and there are prospects for as many as 25-30 golds for the United States in those two sports.
"Prior to our trials, there were some doubts about where we were," said USOC Executive Director Baaron Pittenger. "I think those doubts were somewhat dispelled by the trials. It seems we might be better than we thought we were."
Looking past simple medal counts, Pittenger said this team "is one of the best balanced teams" in U.S. Olympic history. In 1976, the only U.S. teams to qualify for Olympic competition were in men's and women's basketball. The United States did not send volleyball teams to Montreal, nor did it send any for team handball or water polo, he said. They just weren't good enough to make the Olympic cutoff.
Now, they all are, and they're all here, whether they win medals or not.
The U.S. team has a decidedly international flavor on its coaching staff. A total of 25 coaches and managers out of about 150 in the U.S. delegation were born and raised outside the United States, including Bela Karolyi, a U.S. gymnastics coach who once trained Nadia Comaneci in Romania, and Pavel Katsen, the head coach of the Greco-Roman wrestling team, who was once a master of sport in the Soviet Union.
About half of all U.S. athletes already have arrived in Seoul and are beginning to settle into the Olympic Village, a lively, colorful and pleasant place protected by blocks and blocks of fencing and hundreds of guards and volunteers.
Inside, it is an oasis from the world. But for several U.S. athletes who are here or are on their way, there is no escape from some potentially distressing problems.
Two top U.S. athletes are nursing illness and injury. Runner Mary Decker Slaney, a favorite in the 1,500 and 3,000 meters, reportedly has had an infection for more than two weeks and has just resumed training.
Gymnast Kelly Garrison-Steves, second overall at the U.S. trials, has a stress fracture in her ankle and is not able to practice at full strength. If she does not improve, Rhonda Faehn could take her place, making it four Bela Karolyi-coached gymnasts on the six-woman team; Phoebe Mills, Brandy Johnson and Chelle Stack are the others. Kristie Phillips, the second alternate who remains in the United States, then could be flown here to take Faehn's place.