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Former Soviet Republic’s Team Finds Home Away From Home

July 21, 1996

ATLANTA (AP) _ As a reward for hosting the Summer Olympics, the state of Georgia got to enter its own Olympic team. Or so it’s been suggested to Merab Ratishvili.

``They say, `I didn’t know Georgia had its own team!′ People ask me, `What part of Georgia are you from, south Georgia or north Georgia?‴ recounts Ratishvili.

But while Peach State natives such as Gwen Torrence, Teresa Edwards and Kris Benson are still part of that unified team from the United States, Ratishvili is the press attache for the first independent Olympic team from that other Georgia _ the former Soviet republic in the Caucasus Mountains.

``These are key games, to represent our own country for the first time,″ Ratishvili says. ``We have no good economy, but we have very good sports. It is important to feel the national spirit at the Olympics. It is special to do it in this Georgia.″

The Georgian team has 36 athletes in the Atlanta Games, about the same number of athletes on the U.S. team who were either born or residing in Georgia.

And there are other similarities between the two Georgias:

_ They both tend to speak English with a marked accent.

_ They both seceded from a union with its government to the north.

_ They both have mountains and hot weather.

_ They both grow peaches.

_ They both eat a lot of chicken. In the republic, it’s roasted with walnuts and spicy sauces to make satsivi. In the state, it’s dredged in flour, and thrown in a skillet to make Southern-fried chicken.

_ They pride themselves on hospitality. In the republic, they say: ``When a guest comes, it is like sunrise. When he leaves, it is sunset for the host.″ In the state, they say: ``Y’all come back now, hear?″

``There are differences. But they are as friendly here as in Georgia,″ summarized Jumber Lezhava, a Georgian who holds a slew of records for ``press-ups″ (push-ups), such as 44,141 in 24 hours.

He diverted the planned around-the-world bicycle trip he began in 1993 to Atlanta for the Olympics. ``I’ve always been fascinated with this Georgia.″

Although some people in this state still grumble that their secession failed and they had to go back under that northern government, the republic’s independence has meant an often-troubled five years of civil war, unrest and economic upheaval.

People in this Georgia have tried to help.

``They have suffered a lot, and we feel like they’re family,″ said Norma Hassinger, an Atlanta resident who’s visited the republic repeatedly.

Atlanta adopted the capital of Tbilisi as its sister city, and the local Friendship Force and other groups have shipped thousands of pounds of supplies there. Local universities and hospitals have provided training and aid to physicians and other professionals from the republic.

Hassinger rolls her eyes when she witnesses confusion about the Olympic team.

``They are very educated, literate people,″ she said. ``It’s embarrassing to see Americans who don’t know where Georgia is.″

Ratishvili said that doesn’t bother the Olympic team members, because the confusion is usually followed by a warm reception.

``When they learn we are from the other side of the world, they tell us they are very glad we are in Georgia. They say they will support us,″ he said.

The Georgian House, a hospitality and education center for the country, opened the night before the Olympics did. It’s located near the Centennial Olympic Park, across the street from The House of Blues, which had its opening the same night.

So far, the lines have been long each night at The House of Blues, while there’s been only a trickle of guests to The Georgian House. On opening night, its featured guest was the state minister. At The House of Blues, it was The Blues Brothers band, with Dan Aykroyd, Jim Belushi and John Goodman.

But the Georgian House had its own special attractions _ smoked cheese and vodka named for their president, Eduard Shevardnadze.

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