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OLYMPIC TORCH // THE ZIGZAG TO ATLANTA

Like a gutsy Olympic boxer who has just taken somebody's Sunday punch to the jaw, the Olympic torch-bearers have been staggering this way and that about the country.

They are full of pride and high resolve, these 10,000 jocks and ex-jocks, local heroes, doers of good works and ordinary Americans who just want to have some part in the greatest of international sports events.

They have staggered, detoured and occasionally fallen down in their 81-day ordeal, but they have held to the master fight plan: To get from Los Angeles to Atlanta on July 19, for opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games.

The torch-bearers have embraced all means of travel except the speedy.

They walked, they ran, they rode bicycles. They took boat rides and train rides. They went by wheelchair and walker, by fire engine and crop-duster plane. Some 325 even put on the blue jeans, red shirt and yellow bandana of the historic Pony Express and carried the Olympic torch in special pouches behind their saddles.

The Great Zigzag to Atlanta began April 27 at the shabby old Los Angeles Coliseum under the shadow of two large statues of athletes. The statues are anatomically correct save for one omission; neither has a head.

Atlanta officials, somehow sensing delicacy in the television audience, asked L.A. officials to drape the artworks. The request was refused. Television watchers saw the statues, survived the shock.

The flame flew in from Greece and was put into a 4-foot-wide cauldron. Festivities began with decathlon gold medalist Rafer Johnson trotting up to light the torch at the cauldron. He handed off to the granddaughter of 1936 Olympic hero Jesse Owens, who passed it to gold medal swimmer Janet Evans, who handed off to the Rev. Gregory Boyle, a priest who works with gang members in the city.

"You start thinking, "God, what if I look like Bill Clinton in running shorts,' " Boyle said. "But you can't be vain about this."

The torch moved through southern California sprawl, then headed east through the desert toward Arizona. Hundreds carried the flame, among them: mariachi band members, transvestite cheerleaders, a Queen Elizabeth look-alike, a cluster of surfers with boards and, yes, Vanna White.

At Yuma, Ariz., a 19-car Union Pacific train was waiting to launch a whistle-stop tour to Chicago, with hundreds of pauses while torch bearers moved the flame on its way. The train carried the flame in a cauldron on a special car. Piloting the train for much of its journey was veteran engineer Mike Stinson.

"This is my most exciting trip," he said, adding judiciously, "except for working a circus train."

At each stop an official would "get a light" from the cauldron, then bring the burning torch to wherever a band boomed, a speech bombed and a crowd had gathered.

Torches are 32 inches high, weigh 3 pounds and carry enough fuel to burn 40 minutes, much longer than individuals carried them. They are made of aluminum, with Georgia pecan wood handles made by the Louisville Slugger baseball bat company. A bearer who wanted to keep his torch could pay $275 and take it home.

In Phoenix, the torch was carried by Mirsada Buric Adam, who had been designated a "community hero" because she helped bring 10 refugees out of Bosnia. Adam herself had represented Yugoslavia in the 3,000-meter run at the Barcelona Olympics. Since then, she had been in a Serb concentration camp, escaped, come to America and married.

"Some would call running the Olympic torch a step down from the actual Olympics," Adam said. "But it was a special American moment for me."

From Arizona the route turned north to Las Vegas, then west again, back to California, with stopovers in dozens of cities, even risking its flame on a cable car ride in San Francisco.

Then came Oregon, a ferry ride to Washington state and near disaster.

A bicyclist named Harvey Sheffield was crossing the Tacoma Narrows Bridge when his rear tire caught in the wire grating of the roadway. The tire blew, the torch popped out of its holder, fell to the roadway and broke into pieces.

"Unfortunately," said Sheffield, 32, "there were cameras all over the place."

The Olympic flame, direct from Athens, maybe even direct from a contemporary of Socrates, went out like . . . well, a light.

"Not to worry," said one spokeswoman for the Olympic Committee. "It's happened before," said another. "We just get another light from the Mother Flame," said a third.

The torch got several bad bounces on the way to Atlanta. High winds snuffed it in Colorado while people dressed up as Pony Express riders transported it. Officials quickly substituted a lantern which reportedly was also carrying Olympic flame.

In Nebraska, a Pony Express horse named Ricky gave notice he was in the mail-carrying business, not a transporter of evil-smelling fire sticks.

Ricky behaved badly. He bucked and pitched, and the torch fell and broke in pieces. Out came that special lantern again.

Eugene Stumblingbear was in a 31-canoe convoy, escorting the torch on the Arkansas River to Wichita, Kan. The stately Stumblingbear brought the torch on the last leg of its journey to a cauldron set up under the 50-foot-tall statue of the Keeper of the Plains in Wichita.

In Oklahoma City, Police Sgt. Jennifer Rogers listened to the moment of silence at the site of the bombing that killed 168. One of the first police officers to arrive at the bomb scene, Rogers was another torch-bearing "community hero."

"I couldn't come to the bombing site before, because I couldn't handle it," the sergeant said. "Carrying the torch put a closure on the bombing for me."

The flame passed through the Fort Worth Stockyards as thousands cheered from the sidewalks. The steers inside the pens gazed glumly in the direction of the noise.

In downtown Dallas, two-time pole vault champion Bob Richards talked sense to a crowd that was all too eager to chant, "Yew Ess Aye _ Yew Ess Aye." (Translation: USA.)

"The glory in the Games is in taking part," Richards said, "not in victory."

Three days later, on May 23, the torch was in Cajun Country and in trouble. A ruptured Marathon Oil pipeline spewed 310,000 gallons of gas into a swamp near Gramercy, La. This broke up a celebration and plans for several parties along the route.

A Louisiana state cop uneasily summed up the situation: "We didn't want people running with a flame through a gas spill."

No party-givers were more frustrated than the makers of Zapp's Potato Chips, a local brand. When the torch motorcade didn't stop as expected, a Zapp's man ran after a car in the procession and tossed a huge box of potato chips into its open trunk.

The torch relay stopped at Washington University in St. Louis for, so to speak, a little of the hair of the dog that bit their forebears. The 1904 Olympics was held at the university.

Those earlier Games were quaint compared with the Atlanta extravaganza. Twelve nations sent athletes to St. Louis; 197 will turn up in Atlanta. General admission was 50 cents in St. Louis, with the best seats in the house going for $1; Atlanta seats go for as much as $600.

The torch went waterborne on the American Queen, a steamboat, up the Mississippi River. Runners and walkers took over in Iowa City; also a disgruntled man in a wheelchair.

"I tried to make the 1924 and 1928 Olympic swim teams," said 95-year-old Irving Weber. "I didn't make either one."

Some seven decades later he made it as a torch bearer, and looked sadly back through the years. "I had to compete against Tarzan _ Johnny Weismuller," he said. "I didn't belong in the same pool with him."

(Nonagenarians popped up _ well, rose slowly and with dignity _ all along the route of the torch. In Durham, N.C., outside Duke University Hospital, Thelma Sloan, 90, carried the torch in one hand and her cane in the other.)

In St. Paul, Susie Wells, 35, whose leukemia went into remission after a bone marrow transfusion 20 months ago, jogged with the torch for half a mile, then handed off to Barbara LeCleir, 38, whom she was meeting for the first time.

LeCleir had donated the marrow that saved Wells' life.

Transplant rules prevent donors and recipients from meeting for a year. But the two women were allowed to correspond anonymously through their local Red Cross offices, Wells in Ohio, LeCleir in Wisconsin.

The National Marrow Donor Program and Olympic torch-bearing sponsor Coca-Cola arranged for Wells, her husband and two children, ages 9 and 7, to fly to St. Paul and take part in the relay.

"It's an honor, an absolute honor," said LeCleir as she jogged with the flame, "and I do this for Susie. She's the hero in this thing."

"This woman went through all that to save my life, and she didn't even know me," said Wells, crying. The two torch-bearers fell into each other's arms.

The torch traveled by ore carrier across Lake Erie to Cleveland, then down through Ohio to Kentucky. The latest local basketball god, University of Kentucky coach Rick Pitino, got a monstrous ovation as he carried the torch into Louisville.

Back up to Ohio again, to the little town of Morrow, where high school track coach Kevin Skeen ran one leg of the torch relay. His students had held a car wash and bake sale to help him buy the $275 torch as a memento.

Trouble, or worse, was brewing with the Seneca tribe, who live on the Cattaraugus Reservation, south of Buffalo. The reservation was on the planned route, but no one on the Olympic Committee had asked permission to move the torch over Seneca territory.

"That's typical of Americans' ignorance of Indian peoples," said Seneca president David Bowen.

His solution: Snuff the torch as soon as it enters tribal territory. Then light it with "the flame of Native American sovereignty."

The Olympic Committee got the message _ and belatedly asked permission. On June 11, the torch passed through the reservation _ unsnuffed.

The torch rolled down from New England, passed through the Bronx and Harlem, finally came to rest at 10 p.m. at Rockefeller Center, where the giant Christmas tree is set up every December. But this was June, and like a tired tourist, the torch headed for its hotel in a not very nice location _ the Holiday Inn Crown Plaza on Times Square.

At least, the Presidential Suite had been reserved. Before entering the hotel, the light was transferred to a lantern. A little sign on the door of the torch's bedroom declared: This is a smoking room.

Next day, the torch rode a ferry boat to the Statue of Liberty and, still in its tourist mode, had its picture taken with the much larger and far more renowned torch.

Olympic women's team basketball player Dawn Staley got the prize leg of the Philadelphia appearance: running up the Art Museum steps while a band played the theme from Rocky.

"I planned to run one step at a time, but I ended up skipping by twos," Staley said. "I was floating on air!"

Trumpets blared from the White House balcony as the torch moved into the heart of Washington. The crowd waiting outside the White House broke into applause when the torch came into view, carried by Sister Mary Popit of the Sisters of the Holy Child, dressed in white shorts and T-shirt. She workes with homeless women in Washington at New Endeavors by Women.

Maybe the best thing about the torch is that, nearly everywhere in this huge country, it lowered boiling points. Again and again, large numbers of people came together as torch-bearers _ and behaved.

They didn't yell. They didn't try to make a lot of money out of each other. And for the most part, they didn't bring up old grudges.

When legislators in Greenville County, S.C., got out of Olympic line _ in early June, they reaffirmed an anti-homosexual resolution _ Atlanta Games officials decided the torch would not be seen in the county, although the city of Greenville, which did not join in the resolution, remained on the route.

Said David Emanuel, head of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games torch caravan: "We did not think the county's resolution was symbolic of what the Olympic flame stands for _ peace and friendship."

_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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