ONCE MORE THE TORCH PASSES from hand to hand, though now its
sacred flame is reflected in Seoul's gleaming Olympic facilities, in
the expectant faces of that city's ambitious inhabitants and, yes, in
the polished black helmets of South Korean riot police. We may all be
forgiven for crouching with sprinter Carl Lewis in the flickering
light, not knowing fully what is to come.
Lewis, at this moment of apprehension, is more than a bearer of
the American colors. He instructs us in how these Games of the XXIV
Olympiad ought to be approached. In the starting blocks, he puts
aside everything that has gone before and begins his event afresh.
For a few riveting seconds, he breaks away from differences with
opponents, from what he stands to gain or lose, from family, from
history, from safety, from everything except attaining his precisely
machined top speed.
As we, too, strive for focus, there is every reason to believe
that what will happen in Seoul will be wonderfully different from any
Summer Games since 1972.
There will be African athletes, as there were not in Montreal in
1976. There will be Americans, as there were not in Moscow in 1980.
There will be Soviets and East Germans, as there were not in Los
Angeles in 1984.
Of course, there were Games in all these places. They were
memorable and alive and authentic. They were also compromised in
The toughest possible competition requires an ideal gathering. It
takes all the finest athletes to settle who is supreme, if only for a
single, gathered day. What could be more brutal, more innocent? What
has turned out to be more difficult?
Having no choice, most athletes accepted diluted Games as better
than none. But don't talk to them about recent Olympics living up to
their stated ideal of universal participation. Few could do what the
American runner Evelyn Ashford did after she won the 100 meters in
L.A. She caught a plane to Switzerland, found Marlies Gohr of
boycotting East Germany, beat her in a world-record 10.76, and
thereby unified her gold medal.
But this time such lengths won't be necessary. This time, we're
going to be lucky. True, Cuba, Ethiopia, Nicaragua, Albania, the
Seychelles and, not least, North Korea may be absent, and they will
be missed, but at the very least, 161 of the IOC's 167 member
countries will send teams totaling more than 10,000 athletes. No
Olympics has come close to the number of matchups of the world's best
-- in many cases history's best -- that will come off in Seoul's
lovingly and expensively prepared stadiums.
These Olympians are thinking about one another with all the
intimate curiosity of rivals, even though some have never met. Mary
Slaney broods in spite of herself on Tatyana Samolenko's kick.
Samolenko wonders what it would be like to run serenely from the
front like Slaney.
Some haven't been able to escape each other. Stefan Edberg of
Sweden and Steffi Graf and Boris Becker of West Germany will bring
back tennis as a medal sport after a 64-year banishment, but they may
be excused for flashbacks to strawberries and cream.
U.S. Olympic coach John Thompson ruminates upon the odds of Oscar
Schmidt of Brazil being able to ruin another American basketball
summer with six three- pointers in one half, as happened at the Pan
American Games last year. Heike Drechsler of East Germany thinks how
weird it is that all she has to do to rule the world of women's track
and field is defeat one American family, the Florence Griffith
Joyner/Jackie Joyner-Kersee combine.
All the other divers think about Greg Louganis of the U.S. and
what it must be like to be an athlete with the wiring of an android.
American swimmer Janet Evans thinks about East German rival Anke
Mohring and the 800 freestyle, and Mohring wonders how Evans's body
by Paper Mate could possibly have set three world records.
Carl Lewis thinks about his Canadian nemesis, Ben Johnson, and
running his own race.
And we think that because time allows so few of these universal
celebrations, this party will be the more memorable for being in
South Korea. Go read somewhere else about how the Land of the Morning
Calm has also been the Land of the Morning Disturbance. Sport is
supposed to cut across all that and show it up. Read here that
regardless of whether or not every guest wants to stay on, Seoul will
be a marvelous place to visit.
Of course, the Korea of the Games will be the Land of the Morning
Panic. Barry Frank, the consultant to the Seoul Olympic Organizing
Committee (SLOOC), who negotiated the television contract, persuaded
SLOOC and in turn the South Korean legislature to put the country on
daylight saving time, so Seoul is a full 14 hours ahead of New York
instead of the usual 13. In part as a result, most of NBC's
prime-time coverage (7:30 p.m. EDT to midnight) will be live.
But that is 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. (the next day) in Seoul, so there
will be some pretty bleary-eyed basketball players taking sight of a
distant rim in their early-morning preliminaries.
The network will air 179 1/2 hours, beginning with a two-hour
preview on Thursday, Sept. 15, a day before the opening ceremonies,
and concluding with a three-hour review on Tuesday, Oct. 4, two days
after the flame gutters out.
NBC is selling 30-second commercial spots in prime time for
$330,000, and there are a lot of spots in 19 days. The current
projection is for total ad revenue to top out at around $547 million.
Subtract from that figure the $300 million NBC bid for the rights,
$82 million paid in ad agency commissions, $110 million in production
expenses and $15 million for advertising and promotion, and NBC will
have a tidy $40 million left over.
Mindful of the great truth of these Games -- that the competition
will be the deepest, most ferocious ever -- NBC has pledged not to
repeat ABC's mortifying chest-pounding at every U.S. victory in Los
Angeles. Hold that thought.
At the point of battle, at the net, the oars, the mat, when an
athlete fights to be alone with his task, when he has teammates yell
''Focus!'' at him, one of the things he puts out of mind is the
knowledge that a nation has its hopes riding on him. This is not to
deny that multitudes are genuinely moved by the Olympian. A few will
emulate him. More just want to be near, to touch him as a totem, to
sprinkle his spirit on their cereal.
This has led to the flags, the $300 million TV contracts, the shoe
wars, even the raised fists on the victory stand in Mexico City in
This has led to nations spending huge sums that might otherwise
have gone to education or pollution control or health care on
producing Olympic athletes instead.
And this has led, in a different way, to the idea that hosting the
Games certifies a country's entry, or return, into respectable
society. From Melbourne (We see you down there) in 1956, through
Rome (The first of the Axis to be trusted), Tokyo (Contrite, you have
regained face), Mexico City (We see you up there), Munich (All is
forgiven), Montreal (Let's hear it for deficit spending), Moscow (We
see you behind the Curtain) and Los Angeles (Three cheers for the
profit motive), every Olympic city has had a clear reason to host the
Games. Though such motives have ranged from boosterism to atonement,
what they have all had in common is acceptance. Whole nations,
seeking comfortable legitimacy, depend on a bunch of athletes to give
it to them.
Standing back in awe at the massive stage the Olympics have
become, an old Olympian thinks idly of a road -- more of a forest
path -- not taken. Would we have had the boycotts and TV billions,
the corporate and political fascination, were it not for one crucial
element that has been with the Olympics since 1896? Athletes take
part as representatives of their countries.
So long as they do, the evolving priorities of governments will
determine the fortunes of both athletes and the Games. Abhorrence of
sporting contacts with South Africa led to the 1976 black African
boycott. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan led to the U.S. boycott
in 1980, and 1980 led to 1984.
The chief geologic shift of 1988 concerns glasnost. The Soviet
Union's greater openness already has had a heartening effect on
sports. With U.S. wrestlers training in the U.S.S.R., the NBA's
Atlanta Hawks playing there, Arvydas Sabonis being treated, and
entreated, by the Portland Trail Blazers and the NHL's courtship of
Soviet hockey stars, there can be real hope that Seoul's Olympics
will be free of at least some of the nationalistic tensions that have
gripped them in the past.
For the athlete set to compete, thinking about political matters
shorts out the old neural pathways. And then he or she can't do what
is necessary. Ideally, the consciousness of nationality will flit
amiably through the Olympic Village, adding festivity but not much
Would that it could be a little more so on television and in the
daily prints, where medal counts receive so much attention. The
constant tally of medal totals may give certain impressions about the
worth of nations that win many or that win few. But there are limits
to these kinds of conclusions. Winning has little to do with the
society a winner comes from; otherwise winners couldn't come from all
the places they do. A country is entitled to take credit for its
athletes to about the same extent that it can take credit for its
corn. Is it the Midwest's responsibility that it has been dry this
summer? Well, then. As it is a privilege -- one we see we take too
much for granted -- to sit down to three or four ears of Minnesota
sweet corn with butter, so it is a privilege to have great athletes.
September 13, 1988
Among us. And opposing us.
And here before us in Seoul. The only sensible thing to do is to
toast the resurrected flame, the shifty-eyed security folk, the
shrewd television purveyors and the entire, tense assembly of U.S.
and Eastern bloc rivals, so long divided, now poised before Olympic
Soak up their stories in the following pages. Observe their
shining, half- demented individuality. And then grant them a moment
of expectant silence. They're trying to focus.