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CELEBRITY ROW // Belarus or Della Reese?

Nobody wanted to make room for the working press.

"Sit down, you idiot!" a man yelled. "We can't see!"

The bleachers overlooking the Olympic rowing course were crammed to capacity. The starting line was a mile away, so the 15,000 spectators had to settle for the last minute or so of action before the finish line.

It takes about seven or eight minutes for the racing shells to cover the 2,000-meter course. For most of that time, the fans can't see who is ahead and who is behind.

So they listen to the announcers babble, engage in small talk and wait for that fateful moment when the boats finally come into view.

"Sit down!" the man screamed. "You're in my way!"

Rowing isn't exactly a spectator sport. It would be, though, if the Olympic Committee put the stands on huge rollers and moved them along the course with the boats so the fans got a little more for their money. Then maybe people wouldn't get so testy when somebody stands up in front of them.

"Thanks a lot. I missed the finish!"

The race is really decided at the beginning. That's where the tactics come into play.

"It is all very technical," Martin Ebert said. "By the time the rowers get here, where we can see them, the race is already done."

Ebert, a Berliner working on his doctorate in physics at the University of North Carolina, drove 200 miles in the rain on a motorcycle to cheer on the crew from Germany.

"If this wasn't the Olympics, there'd be 100 people here," he said. "Not many people follow rowing."

Perhaps more would if they knew rowing's rich history. Not only is rowing one of the earliest Olympic events, it is one of earliest sports, period. The ancient Greeks rowed. So did the Egyptians. The Romans were famous for their rowing crews, although most of their oars men were slaves, convicts or prisoners of war, motivated more by a whip than a medal.

Despite this colorful past, rowing doesn't enjoy the high profile of many of the other Olympic sports. You won't see the celebrities here like you would at boxing or track and field.

"That is fine with me," said Shannon Stewart of Denver. "I saw Scottie Pippen the other night at the women's basketball game, and when I said, "Hi,' to him, he looked at me like he had just smelled a hairy armpit on a MARTA train."

Her brother, John Sumner, had his own brush with the rich and famous.

"I saw Bruce Willis the other night at a boxing match," he said. "But I doubt you'd see somebody like Bruce Willis here."

Celebrity sightings are big news here in Atlanta. The city's major daily newspaper runs a column every day, letting everybody know who was where, when.

But Stewart and Sumner had had their share of all the hoopla. As a result, they deliberately sought sports on the fringe.

"I went to a fencing match the other night," she said. "I sat right in the middle of a big group of Italian men. I've never been so happy in my life."

Sumner spent an afternoon watching Greco-Roman wrestling.

"Interesting crowd," he said. "Lots of bald men with bumps on their heads and cauliflower ears, but no celebrities."

Rowing may not be the easiest sport to watch, or the best event to attend to see movie stars, but it does provide plenty oftime to get to know your neighbors in the stands. The conversation might be so stimulating, you'll forget that another race has started.

"Germany leads, followed by the United States and Belarus," the announcer declared.

"Did she say, " Della Reese?' " I asked. "The actor?"

"Della Reese is here?" somebody else said.

"No ... Belarus, the country," Sumner corrected.

Innocent mistake. Belarus. Della Reese. Sort of sounds the same.

"Maybe she is here." Stewart said.

Not likely, it was agreed. What would the star of the CBS television show Touched by an Angel be doing at a rowing match? They were definitely talking about Belarus, which used to be part of the Soviet Union. They make a lot of tractors and eat turnip borscht.

The Germans, Americans and Belarussians were still nowhere to be seen. So we compiled a list of other celebrities who were nowhere to be seen.

Princess Anne. Not here. Check equestrian. Brooke Shields. Nope. She's watching tennis. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Not a chance. He's with the Dream Team.

" Helmut Kohl, Steffi Graf, Boris Becker, they're not here either," said Ebert the German.

The list went on ... Merv Griffin, Greta Garbo, Bob Dylan, Jack Nicholson, Denny McLain, Idi Amin, Rocky and Bullwinkle ... they all missed rowing.

With that, the Americans plowed across the finish line, and everybody, including the angry man in the back, stood up and cheered as the announcer played the Village People's YMCA.

Then Stewart remembered another celeb missing in action.

" Elvis," she said. "He's not here."

No. But he wishes he were.

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