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Rain Can’t Squelch Olympic Torch

June 21, 1996

WASHINGTON (AP) _ It was a nice thought anyway.

The Olympic flame was to burn all night on the White House lawn following a presidential ceremony.

But minutes after the ceremony ended Thursday night, the skies opened. At the end of a short but intense rainburst, the torch was out.

Michelle Timmerman strolled past the White House lawn about midnight hoping to see the flame and was a bit disappointed.

``This was about the only opportunity I would get to see it,″ said Timmerman, visiting Washington from Fort Wayne, Ind.

But she and her friends also saw some humor.

``Despite the lack of a flame, I find the body of the torch motivating,″ quipped Paul DiCamillo of Potomac, Md.

There was little concern that the Olympic flame would not make it to Atlanta. The ``mother flame,″ used to light the individual torches each morning, was stowed safely in a Washington hotel, guarded by the Georgia State Patrol.

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Earlier Thursday evening, the scene was picture perfect: the White House against a black sky framing the ornate cauldron that would hold the Olympic flame.

Everyone even seemed dressed for the occasion, with the first and second couples wearing bright-but-solid colors that wouldn’t clash with one other in photos. A majestic fountain cascaded water just a few feet back.

But when the Olympic flame finally arrived onto the platform, President Clinton stayed hidden behind the cauldron as he helped torch runner I. King Jordan, president of Gallaudet University, light the base.

This prompted photographers, the only audience for the show, to yell, ``Mr. President, we can’t see you!″

Eventually, Vice President Al Gore heard them and prompted the president to move in front, where he smiled wide for the cameras.

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As Jordan stood on the presidential platform, he raised his hand with his pinky, forefinger and thumb pointed up, a sign language symbol for ``I love you.″

To the uninitiated though, his gesture may have looked a lot like those childhood rabbit ears, and his hand was stationed just behind the president’s head as cameras clicked.

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The nation’s jogger-in-chief didn’t carry the torch himself. It turns out that’s against policy: No politicians allowed.

``Unfortunately, that applies to everyone,″ said Billy Payne, president of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, the force behind bringing the games to Atlanta.

But Payne, who said he’s only met up with the torch a few times on its relay, promised that the president was not being overlooked.

``He will play a very important role,″ he said.

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Torchbearer Martin Begosh, 24, carried the torch to the White House grounds, one of 10,000 people to carry the flame across the country.

Nominated through a contest by sponsor Coca-Cola, Begosh was the first U.S. soldier injured when the peacekeeping mission was sent to Bosnia last fall.

``It wasn’t worth getting blown up, but its pretty cool,″ said Begosh, who carried the torch in a wheelchair pushed by his father.

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A group of teen-agers in the torch crowd Thursday were fitting celebrants for an Olympic event. They were foreign exchange students finishing up a year in the United States, and they were downright giddy at the sight of the flame.

``We’re trying to unite the whole world for world peace and the Olympic torch is trying to do the same thing, so we’re the same,″ said Caroline Haettenschwiler, 17, of Switzerland, who spent her senior year of high school in Archbold, Ohio.

Caroline was sad to say they would be home by the time the Olympics begin.

``But we’re going to be here with our hearts,″ she said.

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One of these students, Tamar Stern, said this sort of event wouldn’t be the same in her native Germany.

``I think in Germany it would be some politicians speaking,″ she said.

Maybe she missed Washington Mayor Marion Barry, who was at center stage, or the members of the local city council, who were introduced one by one.

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