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Olympic Torch Swings Through Georgia’s Pre-Civil War Capital

July 13, 1996

MILLEDGEVILLE, Ga. (AP) _ The Olympic torch got an antebellum welcome Saturday in Georgia’s pre-Civil War capital, where more than 3,000 onlookers cheered the flame on its trek to Atlanta, the capital of the New South.

Torch watchers crowded the campus lawn at Georgia College, where a stage was set up to receive the flame among century-old columned buildings and shady pecan trees.

Standing five-deep along a roped-off walkway, people teetered on the tips of their toes to catch a glimpse of the flame as college president Ed Speir, temporarily hobbled by a ruptured Achilles tendon, carried his torch from a wheelchair.

Ever since the relay route was announced, the torch had been the talk of the town in this middle Georgia city.

While Atlanta counted the days until the opening ceremony Friday, Milledgeville businesses posted signs counting down to the flame’s arrival.

``I don’t think we’ve had anything this big,″ said Kathleen Fowler. ``There was a big crowd for the Fourth of July fireworks, but it was not nearly this big.″

The city that served as Georgia’s capital until 1868, when it moved to Atlanta, poured on its Old South charm during a welcoming ceremony that somewhat resembled a plantation lawn party.

Despite the heat, some women wore chiffon and lace dresses with billowy skirts for the Southern-belle look epitomized by ``Gone With the Wind″ heroine Scarlet O’Hara. Instead of mint juleps, they sipped beverages provided by omnipresent Olympic sponsor Coca-Cola.

Torchbearer Rich Bertoli, who carried the flame into Milledgeville along state Highway 49, found himself swarmed with children and posing for pictures as the youngsters grinned above the blackened top of his torch.

``I had some concerns about running a half mile at my age, but my feet never touched the ground. Once that torch is lit, you’re just energized,″ said Bertoli, 53, who was picked for the relay because of his volunteer work with groups like the United Way.

After several days of cooler weather, the sun left runners like Bertoli soaked with sweat even before they began running. During the ceremony, balloons taped to the stage backdrop popped like popcorn under the sweltering sun.

The torch was slated to travel 269 miles Saturday from Perry to Statesboro on a winding jaunt that took the flame through Warner Robins, Macon, Dublin, Eastman, Soperton, Vidalia, Reidsville and Claxton.

In Milledgeville, torchbearer Richard Kauffman took the flame past the old state capitol building on the campus of Georgia Military College, though the runner from Sandersville confessed ``I’m not much of a history buff myself.″

The city’s final torchbearer, Gabriela Bardizbanian, has lived in the United States only seven years. She emigrated from Bulgaria, where she was a member of the national water-skiing team.

Bardizbanian, a Milledgeville textile worker who has helped house and support students from her home country who attend Georgia College, said she had dreamed of carrying the torch since she saw it en route to Moscow before the 1980 Olympics.

``I know the feeling to win the medals and win the tournaments. It’s something to show yourself,″ she said. ``Now I don’t have anything to show, nothing to compete with. I just give all of myself to the crowd that’s on the road.″

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