A New Mix of Nations Faces off in Barcelona Some 10,000 Athletes from 172 Countries Will Make the Summer Games History's Largest Athletics Event

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AL OERTER, a much-decorated American discus thrower, once described the Olympics of the 1950s and '60s as "county fairs." Today the Games are almost unmanageably large. But that hasn't suppressed the enthusiasm among organizers of the Games of the XXVth Olympiad. They stand ready to host the biggest athletic event in history, July 25 to Aug. 9.

The Games are filled with sports that seem strange bedfellows - from the highly professionalized (basketball and tennis) to those with aristocratic images (yachting and equestrian events) to the traditional (track and field) to what some may see as arcane (team handball, archery, and more). Taken together, however, they form a captivating athletic spectrum that Bud Greenspan, an Olympic filmmaker, says fascinates people because the Olympics "go back so many centuries, it's every four years, and it's the best in the world."

Saturday's opening ceremony could produce one of the most striking features of the 16-day spectacular simply by orchestrating a hitch-free parade of athletes. About 10,000 people, representing 172 countries (both records) are expected to march in, including representatives of Cuba, missing from action during the last two Olympics for political reasons.

"Gigantism," as Olympic sprawl is known, presents a hurdle for the Games as they head toward their modern centennial in Atlanta in 1996. Even so, "big" may translate as "beautiful" in Barcelona.

For years the Olympic officials have been frustrated in their attempts to get the whole "family" together. They have been foiled by boycotts of various sorts, or in the case of South Africa, exclusion, because apartheid flies in the face of the Olympic Charter. Now, however, virtually every member nation may answer the roll call, with every effort being made to allow Yugoslavian athletes to compete despite United Nations sanctions against the warring Serbian government.

Total participation is seen as a cherished objective of Juan Antonio Samaranch, the International Olympic Committee president and a Barcelona native. Obviously, he'd like the first Olympics held on Spanish soil to be special and to establish this Mediterranean metropolis as world-class.

In 1936, Barcelona was prepared to host an alternative to Hitler's Berlin 1936 Olympics, but the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War canceled those People's Olympics the day before their scheduled start.

The architectural centerpiece of that event was to have been Olympic Stadium, built in 1929. Still wearing its original facade but enlarged and modernized inside, it should achieve landmark status this time as the site of the opening and closing ceremonies and the track and field events. The stadium anchors the sports facilities in the Montjuic area, where 10 sports will be contended in something called the Olympic Ring.

All roads and air routes seem to lead to Spain these days, whether for the Olympics or the World's Fair in Seville. The Iberian Peninsula, from which Columbus sailed 500 years ago, is hot, often literally as well as figuratively. To avoid the heat of the day, both the men's and women's marathons will begin at 6:30 p.m.

No matter when events are held, however, hardly any will be seen live on North American prime time TV because of the six-to-nine-hour time difference. NBC, which paid $400 million for the TV rights, is resigned to airing hours of prerecorded footage. Easily the most daring TV development is NBC's decision to provide a joint-venture "Triplecast," a pay-per-view supplemental cable option for those with insatiable viewing appetites and $95 to $170 to spend. There have been few nibbles, though, and the experiment threatens to be an electronic Edsel.

Most Olympic TV watchers apparently don't see the necessity of blanket coverage, including that of normally invisible preliminary rounds and competition. However, favorable TV ratings for a succession of basketball blowouts in a pre-Olympic qualifying tournament suggest that curiosity can overcome insignificance. …