You! Cold war jargon! Get over here!
Sorry, arms race, but we're splitting you up. Arms, report to the wrestling venue. Race, go find bike; you're both needed at the velodrome.
Throw weight, from now on you're to be taken literally. Go directly to the hammer-and-discus cage at the Olympic Stadium—and that's a new world order.
Window of vulnerability? For the next two weeks you'll confine yourself to an upper floor of the U.S. basketball team's hotel in Barcelona. Unless Michael and the lads fall out of you, no other country has a chance in Olympic hoops.
July 21, 1992
The Games of the XXV Olympiad end a quadrennium that began before the Berlin Wall fell and apartheid started falling. Thus it may seem odd that the festivities will be touched off by an implement of war. But that weapon—a burning arrow fired by an archer to ignite the Olympic torch—will quickly immolate itself, and at that moment during the opening ceremonies on July 25, it will be hard to find a cynic in Olympic Stadium.
Chris Campbell certainly won't be one. A member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic wrestling team who fell victim to the American boycott, he quit because of a knee injury just before the '84 Olympic trials and began a career as a corporate lawyer. Three years ago, at 34, he launched a comeback. After such a long siesta, no way would he miss so grand a fiesta. Runner Francie Larrieu Smith witnessed the horrors of Munich as a 19-year-old member of the U.S. track and field team. Now that team's grande dame at 39, she has a chance to heal the child within.
Survey the scene in the stadium, and so much of it seems familiar. Carl Lewis and Sergei Bubka aren't mere athletes, nor are they anything so specific as a long jumper and a pole vaulter. They are Olympians, golden oldies we count on to come 'round every four years, as reliably as nominating conventions and February 29s. Olympians, too, are German track star Heike Drechsler, Lithuanian center Arvidas Sa-bonis and Turkish weightlifter Naim (Pocket Hercules) Suleymanoglu. (Who could have imagined that name ever tripping lightly off the tongue? Yet it does, almost.) Call them roundball mercenaries today, but eight years ago Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin were happy to take payment in gold medals for a fortnight's work. We can tell so many of these players without a scorecard—Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Teresa Edwards, Merlene Ottey, Steve Timmons, Greg Barton, Evelyn Ashford, Janet Evans.
It's the countries we need help with. On Olympic scoreboards the nations from which the competitors come are identified by three-letter abbreviations. In Barcelona there will be 172 such truncations, more than ever before. LAT (Latvia), EST (Estonia) and LIT (Lithuania) are late of the old URS (Soviet Union), whose 11 allied remnants, the Commonwealth of Independent States, will join the former Soviet republic of Georgia in competing as EUN (the Unified Team). SLO (Slovenia) and CRO (Croatia) are now proudly distinct from the rump of YUG (Yugoslavia), which is under United Nations sanctions but will compete in Barcelona under another name, most likely the Independent Team. NAM (Namibia) will field an Olympic team for the first time, and the country from which it has won independence, RSA (South Africa), is back in the good graces of the Lords of the Rings after 32 years. ALB (Albania), SEY (Seychelles), CUB (Cuba), NCA (Nicaragua), MAD (Madagascar), ETH (Ethiopia) and PRK (North Korea), all of which passed up the '88 Olympics in Seoul, have apparently decided the Games are back in their good graces. And there is ample coming together as well as coming apart: FRG (West Germany) and GDR (East Germany) are now just plain GER, and YEM reflects the unification of YAR (the capitalist Yemen Arab Republic) and YMD (the communist Yemen People's Democratic Republic).
Barcelona is a felicitous place for so many new and reconfigured nations to gather. Many of the city's residents dream of a day when CAT (Catalonia) flashes up on some Olympic scoreboard. Only 17 years ago the host city came out from under the jackboot of Francisco Franco, who until his death in 1975 tried to suppress Catalan, the region's native tongue. (Catalan is not a dialect of Spanish, and if you dare suggest that it is, Barcelonans will unhesitatingly decant a bottle of caw, the local champagne, over your head.) In fact, the most meaningful three-letter clusters of the forthcoming fortnight promise to be the Catalan words bar, cel and ona.
Ona is a wave in the sea. Cel is the sky. Bar needs no translation. All figure prominently in this proud and convivial city that, about 1,800 years ago, sent chariot racer Lucius Minicius Natalis Quadronius Verus to Olympia for the Games of the 227th ancient Olympiad. (Yes, Cool Hand Luke brought home the laurel wreath.)
Bar: Four red bars of the horizontal variety decorate the flag of Catalonia, but the symbol of Barcelona might as well be the city's 5,000 taverns. Organizers long ago pronounced these "the alcohol-free Games," and booze won't be sold at most of the venues or in the Olympic Village. But the athletes will be able to take any libation they want into their quarters, and four saloons just outside the Village gates are stocking up. A working-class bar has even been preserved and integrated into the boxing venue in nearby Badalona.
Cel: What could be as breathtaking as an Olympics in the sky? Well, for starters, an Olympic marathon that finishes on a hilltop. The course grade will rise a sadistic 7% over the final 2½ miles before wending into the Olympic Stadium atop Montju‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√≤c, the 567-foot mountain just south of downtown. But the agony will be worth it, for this acropolis, home to the so-called Olympic Ring linking the venues for track and field, swimming and eight other sports, affords the most fetching views of the city and the sea. Terraces graced with olive and orange trees connect the stadium with three of its stunning outbuildings, including the ring's gemstone, the futuristic Palau Sant Jordi, home to gymnastics and the finals in volleyball and handball.
Ona: After years of turning its back on the Mediterranean, Barcelona is using the Games as an opportunity to embrace the sea. Whereas Las Ramblas, the city's lively promenade, once emptied onto a littoral lined with grimy docks and warehouses, it now leads to a new harbor and the adjacent Olympic Village, with its three athletes-only beaches. The Village is an architectural expression of these Games, an eclectic and sensible collection of structures that, like the competing nations, cohere while still retaining their individuality. During the two days that the Village was open to the public in April, more than 700,000 people filed through its squares and esplanades—an astonishing figure but in line with polls showing that 94% of Barcelonans support the Games.
The enthusiasm of the locals has been matched around the world. Barcelona won these Olympics in part because it offered free housing for every delegation. When more than 19,000 members of the Olympic family took up the offer, Spanish organizers found themselves in the awkward position of having to scale back their hospitality and to plead with delegations to march close together so the opening ceremonies might last less than three hours.
But the Olympics should find a bit of overcrowding a relatively minor problem after so many years of being ensnared in tit-for-tat politics. If it seems as if it has been a long wait for a boycott-free Olympics (since 1972), for a cold war-free Games (since 1948), for an Olympics largely unfettered by hypocritical distinctions between pros and amateurs (since antiquity) and for an integrated South African team (since forever), consider Barcelona's wait. The city first pursued the Games of 1924, but they went to Paris. Barcelona lost out again in 1936, to Berlin, and the resolutely democratic Catalans, aghast that an Olympics might celebrate Hitler, cobbled together an alternative "People's Olympics" for that year. Those showing up at the pool for a water polo match on July 20 found a sign that essentially said GAMES CALLED ON ACCOUNT OF WAR—the Spanish Civil War, which had broken out the day before. Several of this summer's venues were built for those early, unavailing bids, including the pool and the Olympic Stadium, both of which have been gussied up impressively.
Going for the Games again seemed only natural after the end of Franco's 36-year dictatorship. Barcelona launched its bid for '92 in 1981, winning out five years later, and two Barcelonans are recognized as midwives of their city's ultimate success. One is Juan Antonio Samaranch, the former roller hockey goalie who is president of the IOC. These Games might be considered a sort of gold, silver and bronze desk set from the IOC membership to Samaranch to cap off his career. The other midwife is Pasqual Maragall, Barcelona's energetic mayor, who like so many of his constituents has an unquenchable passion for design. Everything is planned in Barcelona, down to the plazas' faux tree stumps for dogs to do what they do, and the city has always used its moments of international attention as springboards into the future. The Universal Exposition in 1888 sent Barcelona hurtling well beyond its Gothic Quarter, and another exposition in 1929 pushed the city south to Montju‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√≤c. The $8 billion in Olympics-related building this time around has bought more than-a glittering waterfront; there is an overhauled airport, an expressway on the city's perimeter and countless other improvements that the effusive Maragall, who might remind you of former New York City mayor Ed Koch if Maragall weren't a Baltimore Oriole fan, is only too happy to tell you about.
The father of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, recorded for posterity his first impressions of Barcelona. "Before I came to Barcelona," he wrote in 1926, "I didn't know what a sporting city was." Sixty-six years later Barcelona still sets the standard. In May, when EC. Barcelona, the city's beloved soccer team, won its first European Cup, the postgame parade and rally attracted 1.5 million delirious fans. The most popular museum in town isn't the Fundació Miró or the Museu Picasso but F.C. Barcelona's mausoleum for moldering jerseys and yellowing ticket stubs.
But if the locals reserved their passion exclusively for fútbol, Barcelona would be like any other European city—and so proud a town would never consent to so common a fate. Thus Barcelona brags about being home to the current European club champions in women's basketball and men's water polo. Catalonia has five teams in the first division of the Spanish men's pro basketball league. Live televised chess gets good ratings. Locals filled Barcelona's Palau Sant Jordi for two nights in April for indoor windsurfing races, and Magic Johnson drew 12,000 to the same place not long ago for a clinic. Stateside, the World League of American Football can't find an audience, but in Barcelona the hometown Dragons draw 30,000 a game, and three football-themed discos have sprung up. In one of them young men and women pull on Riddell helmets and career into each other on the dance floor. Flamenco is irredeemably Andalusian; head-butt slam-dancing is somehow Catalan.
Barcelona has not produced many sports stars of its own, perhaps because Barcelonans style themselves as being so refined and sensible. Yet just as outsiders like Picasso and Hemingway came to this town in their youth, so have sporting Spaniards, such as the tennis-playing Sanchez siblings, and foreigners, who are encouraged by the city's willingness to spend a peseta to make it worth their while. Johan Cruyff of the Netherlands, Diego Maradona of Argentina and Gary Lineker of England—the Magic, Michael and Larry of soccer—all did lucrative turns with EC. Barcelona, and Cruyff is now the team's coach.
"It doesn't bother us that our athletes weren't born here," says Pedro Fontana, director of operations for the Barcelona Olympic Organizing Committee. "What we care about most is whether we can have a good team." Indeed. Until the Major League Baseball Players Association vetoed the plan, the St. Louis Cardinals were all set to fly to Barcelona to play two exhibition games with a Japanese team. A man from the Commissioner's Office held a press conference in Barcelona to promote the game, and the first question reflected what three million inquiring minds wanted to know. "Why do we only get St. Louis?" a local reporter asked. "Why not a good team like the Braves or Twins?"
So if nothing but the very best will do, could these overhauled Olympics possibly be good enough? Well, one result of the recent international upheaval will be a credit-where-credit-is-due accounting. The world will finally see that those weren't Soviets who won all those yachting medals over the years but Estonians; and those were Croatians who flipped in a lot of those baskets, not Yugoslavs. This precision of identity ought to cause adrenaline to pump more briskly at the starting line and hearts to flutter more palpably on the medal stand.
Nor should interest diminish with the eclipse of so many politically charged rivalries. If the Winter Games just past were any indication, attention will simply fall more squarely on the athletes, where it belongs. Certainly the continuing bloodshed in the Balkans suggests that ideology is ceding its role as world bogeyman to nationalism, the ism that has always been most ominously integral to the Games. Yet so many athletes nowadays have ties to two or more nations that the N-word is practically moot. Bubka (following story), a Ukrainian who lives in Berlin and behaves like a Californian, has a Polish agent based in Sweden. Spain's Sergio López, a breaststroker with a Hungarian coach, goes to school in Washington, D.C. Who's to say whether basketball's Sarunas Marciulionis belongs to Lithuania, where he was born, or to Golden State, for which he plays? Whether swimmer Anthony Nesty is rightly Surinam's or Gainesville's? Obviously distance runners Yobes and Lisa Ondieki belong to each other, for they are husband and wife—but inasmuch as Yobes is Kenyan and Lisa an Aussie, they belong to all of us, too.
People are already embracing the spirit that moved some members of the U.S.S.R.'s very last track team, at the world championships in Tokyo last summer, to enlist their team doctor, American chiropractor Leroy Perry, to carry the Soviet flag during the closing ceremonies. "It would be bad if the U.S. doesn't win in basketball," says Petar Skansi, the coach of Croatia's fledgling but talented hoops team, with unaffected graciousness. "The NBA players are the best. There should not even be discussion about this. We are too young. We need to grow up." When your nation's very existence has recently hung in the balance, the Olympic creed—that syrupy stuff about how the most important thing isn't to win but to take part—transcends clichè.
Yet for others, these Olympics will be less a chance to take a place on the world stage than an opportunity to take refuge momentarily in the wings. "I will be one of so many thousands," says tennis's Boris Becker, who is actually looking forward to standing in a lunch line behind Djiboutian runners and Romanian gymnasts and Samoan wrestlers.
So queue up, world. You've got a Village by the sea, an Olympus for the Olympics and a sports fan's sports town to order the drinks and pick up the tab. Hola! Bar, cel, ona.