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Freeloadin' in Atlanta

coke is it
Robert Scheer

Dumb and Dumpster: Being big Coke contest winners--Patrick Aloysius Murphy (on the left) found the prize entry in the trash behind an apartment complex in Capitola--allowed the duo (Kevin Samson was the lucky second party) to see the USA play Nicaragua in baseball as well as other minor attractions. Murphy and Samson did not make it to the $600-a-pop opening ceremonies.

Finding Southern-style fun at the 1996 Olympic games

By Kevin Samson

It's a good thing my friend D Patrick Aloysius Murphy was an arts writer. Had he gotten involved in a more lucrative field, he probably wouldn't have been caught dead rummaging around in a dumpster. And why might such a thing be virtuous or fortuitous? Well, the Coca-Cola company had this instant-winner sweepstakes where they offered free all-expenses-paid trips for two to the Olympic games in Atlanta.

As thousands of avid soda drinkers must have torn open their 12-packs like rabid Willy Wonka fans searching for the golden ticket, Murphy happened across the winning game piece in the garbage. And I--like old Grampa Joe--was the one he chose to share his good-luck spree.

The company put us on a flight to Atlanta, where we were among the first group of contest winners to come through--a new group of about 150 would arrive every four days throughout the games. Our hosts were eager to please. They gave us caps and bags and T-shirts, sundry paraphernalia, two tickets to the events and $100 spending money for Murphy. Of course, they also kicked down with all the Coke we could possibly drink. With temperatures teetering in the high 90s, cold liquids were certainly in ready demand.

"I wish I liked Coke," I told Murphy. "Don't they make a beer?"

The company's benevolence had its limits. They didn't spring for tickets to the gargantuan opening ceremonies--which were going for more than $600 a head. We watched the ceremonies on TV with our fellow contest winners in the Coca-Cola hospitality suite, which was actually a whole lot of fun.

The other freeloaders were a great gang and a real sampling of Americana--the part that enters sweepstakes, anyway. These folks were no amateurs, but serious junk mail junkies. One woman from New Orleans claimed she played every contest that came by her, bar none. Others, from Florida to California, nodded agreement. Murphy said this was his best score yet. To keep the luck rolling, he brought a handful of entries with him to Atlanta and posted them from the hotel. "I'm on a streak," he told me.

In addition to trading contest stories, the winners swapped games tickets, volleyball for gymnastics, baseball for basketball. Our opening ceremonies party included free beer and wine and, pretty soon, people were taking photos of each other and carrying on like long-lost relatives. The Olympic spirit was so contagious that I thought we'd all start sobbing any second.

Go Sandinistas!

Murphy and I had tickets to baseball and artistic gymnastics. I'd had enough baseball already this summer and I had no idea what artistic gymnastics were. Someone said that's where they dance with the ribbons. I cringed.

On the first day of the games, we hopped MARTA (Atlanta's commuter rail) and a bus that took us to Fulton County Stadium, home of the Braves and the venue for that morning's baseball game between the U.S. and Nicaragua. It was like watching a college team play against a high school. The predominantly American crowd roared for the U.S., reserving only scattered cheers for our neighbors to the south. Save for a small group behind their dugout, Murphy and I seemed to be the only ones rooting for the Nicaraguans. "Go Sandinistas!" Murphy shouted.

The Nicaraguan club hung on for the first four innings, until their pitcher got whacked and the U.S. began scoring. The Nicaraguans made some costly blunders, like having their power hitter and slowest runner bunt to start the inning, and their third baseman throw an easy, but critical, out toward the bullpen instead of first base. You had to love 'em. Final score: US 4--Nicaragua 1, Coke $75,000 (assuming at least 20,000 fans quenched their thirst by purchasing Coke in $3.75-a-pop commemorative cups).

Gymnastics entailed gridlock in the MARTA station and a rainstorm on the streets leading to the Georgia Dome. Once inside, we found our seats in the nosebleed section, with a good view of all the guide wires that held up the ceiling. The gymnasts looked like tiny figurines way down on the floor. Lucky again, Murphy had come prepared with binoculars.

We saw the Russian, Chinese and Ukrainian teams, which finished gold-silver-bronze. The athletes were impressive and buff. When I remarked to Murphy that the Chinese gymnasts didn't seem to have the muscle bulk and definition of the others, he said that was because they were smarter.

Newt Slept Here

WE HAD COMP TICKETS to see the Coca-Cola Olympic City, which supposedly featured the latest techno wizardry, including virtual reality competition between you and Jackie Joyner-Kersey, but we never made it, opting instead to spend our "free time" gallivanting away from the crowds. Our first day in town, we took our free MARTA tokens and headed for Kennesaw Mountain Battlefield Park outside Marietta, famous (or infamous, as some locals told us) as the home of Newt Gingrich.

To get there, we had to transfer onto a Cobb County bus (about an hour's ride with a lot of local color), which took us to Marietta Square. This little town is replete with Southern charm. I dropped into Maggie's Cafe and ordered the hot dog special--two dogs with chili and coleslaw, fries and a big cup of sweet tea, which they pronounce "sweet tay." It's made with lots of sugar--added while brewing, not after--an authentic Southern drink.

"I went to Chicago and asked for sweet tay and they didn't know what I was talking about," said our waitress.

After Maggie's, we rented bicycles and rode through the historical district, then about four miles through the sultry atmosphere and narrow roads to reach Kennesaw Mountain. The visitors center and museum at Kennesaw were free (we were on roll). We saw a slide show about the sad, bloody fighting at that site, which, as irony would have it, is a beautiful place. Interpretive rangers wore union army outfittings, and loaded and fired Springfield rifles, offering us a glimpse into a not-that-distant time when we fought amongst ourselves rather than inviting the world over for sweet tay and cola.

I came away from Atlanta with my spirit lifted. It had as much to do with the people and their Southern hospitality as with the Olympics. They deserve a gold medal. There is an honest want-to-help-you sentiment among the folks there, not surprising since the games have given them a great number of jobs. Their faces are smiling and bright and proud, though the pace is easy-going Southern.

I was asked by locals on several occasions, would I come back to visit? Yes, I answered, wondering how I could get to Coca-Cola to pay for it again.

On the morning of our departure, we were shuttled to the airport by one of the many friendly hotel staffers. After helping us with our luggage the shuttle driver, a young black woman, gave us a big hug good-bye. And that, for me, was the essence of Southern hospitality and Olympic spirit--the cream on the Georgia peach.

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From the August 1-7, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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