Let the Games Begin

How Magic Johnson stole the show at the opening ceremonies of the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona.
How Magic Johnson stole the show at the opening ceremonies of the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona.
August 02, 1992

You can flood

the stadium floor with 19,000 people. You can fill the sky above with lightning and thunder and smoke and jets and blimps and ka-booms. You can shell out $28 million, lay out 12½ miles of cable, pump out 2,350,000 watts of electricity and roll out 112 giant inflatables, 317 musicians and an 8,861-square-yard flag to open an Olympics.

But you don't really have to do all that.

You can have Magic Johnson drop by instead.

"The greatest festival of our contemporary society is about to begin," proclaimed Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee, into the Olympic Stadium microphone last Saturday night in Barcelona. Onto the stage of the greatest festival of contemporary society walked a 6'9" basketball player carrying a deadly virus and a massive grin—and the show was his.

He was one athlete amid a mass of American runners and leapers and swimmers and gymnasts and cyclists who strode into the stadium under the threat of banishment from the Summer Games by U.S. Olympic Committee officials. "They told us that they would study the videotapes of the parade," said 1,500- and 3,000-meter runner PattiSue Plumer, "and that anybody caught doing anything to attract attention couldn't compete."

Eliminated were the Mickey Mouse ears, windshield-wiper sunglasses and Hi Mom camera-mugging that had upset officials at the 1988 opening ceremonies in Seoul. But there was nothing anyone could do about Magic's smile. Flanked by all but four other members of the Dream Team, he joked and waved and hand-slapped his way around the Olympic Stadium, the TV cameramen stumbling past the world's finest athletes in their rush to reach him, the tension between that grin and that virus somehow washing him onto the shores of an even grander, more tantalizing celebrityhood. He took his place on the infield, on the edge of the track, and then a remarkable thing happened. In front of 65,000 spectators and 3.5 billion TV viewers, the world began fighting to touch a man who is HIV-positive.

Silent, shy, introverted? Who, the women of the Chinese Olympic team? They fought and pushed their way through the U.S. team to get near Magic. French athletes mounted each other's shoulders to snap his photograph, Belizeans ducked and dodged the volunteers who linked arms to protect him. Brazilians in white-and-blue sweat suits, Senegalese in ankle-length brown robes, Egyptians in yellow sport coats and Americans in white panama hats surged toward him, fireflies gleefully offering their glimmer to the greater cause of his aura. "I did it!" exulted Belizean cyclist Douglas Lamb later. "I followed the stream to him! I got his picture! It is the next-best thing to winning a medal. But no, this will not be enough to satisfy all the people at home. I will need to take more pictures, better pictures of Magic Johnson."

But Magic could not give all his attention to the crush of athletes filling the infield behind him, for something else had happened. He had become the parade's alternate review stand. Each national contingent that entered the stadium turned to its right to wave to Samaranch, French president François Mitterrand, Spanish president Felipe González, African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela and King Juan Carlos of Spain. Then, almost immediately, the athletes turned to their left to wave to Magic, to break ranks, slap hands and pose for pictures with him.

Somehow it was reassuring to discover that, on a floodlighted stage full of flag-haggling and hype, fighter jets and robots, pyrotechnics, pomp and politicians, a man with an easy grin and a pretty hook shot was the most fascinating item of all. But a vague uneasiness was beginning to spread among some of the U.S. athletes.

"We love Magic and the Dream Team," said Plumer. "But they have their day in the sun 82 days a year, and we have only one day to shine. The cameras used to go to all of us during opening ceremonies, but now they go straight to them. We're not mad at the Dream Team or Magic. We're mad at the media. . . . Yeah, I think I got a good shot of Magic. If I didn't, my husband will kill me."

Fanning his face with his hat in the 90° heat, Magic watched the three-man Mongolian team lumber in wearing bikini bottoms and knee-high boots, the U.S. Virgin Islands women sashay by in red bikini tops and skirts, the two most eye-popping entries in the record-breaking, 172-delegation-strong parade. These have been proclaimed the Universal Games, the first Summer Olympics in 20 years that no country has boycotted. There were the South Africans, marching for the first time in 32 years, since sanctions aimed at ending apartheid drove them off the world's playing fields. On came the bedraggled Bosnia-Herzegovinians, for their first Olympics ever. Half of the 17-person parade delegation had just left the whine of sniper bullets in Sarajevo, landed in Barcelona three hours before the ceremonies on an IOC-chartered plane, been told its luggage was lost, rushed through the credentials process and poured through the stadium tunnel for what has somehow become the truest proof of nationhood: a stroll around an Olympic stadium.

There were the Lithuanians, at their first Olympics since '28; the Estonians and Latvians for the first time since '36; the North Koreans and the Cubans for the first time since '80; the Croats and the Slovenes for the first time, period. Germany pounded in, united for the first Summer Games since '64; 12 former Soviet republics, trembling between entropy and union, came later, sharing one uniform but trailing a rabble of 12 flags.

The deal-making it took to hold this party, the cobbling and compromises, was a wonder in itself. The South Africans decided to appear beneath a specially designed flag, a hybrid of Olympic and national symbols. The athletes from the former Soviet republics, known as the Unified Team, agreed to the playing of the appropriate republic's anthem should any of them win an individual event and the Olympic anthem should they win an event with a team comprising individuals from more than one republic. Serbia and Montenegro—the bone and gristle leftovers of Yugoslavia—were stripped of all members of team sports, along with their flag, anthem, uniforms and right to march in the parade, and ordered to compete under the title of Independent Olympic Participants. The athletes from Czechoslovakia, which is on the verge of rupture, were permitted one flag but a fractured name, the Czech and Slovak Federative Republic. The host Catalans, many of whom ache for independence from Spain, agreed not to have their flag raised for native medal winners but hung it themselves from thousands of balconies in the city and even pinned it next to underwear on rooftop clotheslines. Spain, stripped of its flag for all intents and purposes by the populace of Barcelona, regained it inside the Olympic stadiums and arenas.

The homeboys finally got a chance to fly it late Monday night, when Josè Manuel Moreno won the gold in cycling's one-kilometer time trial. The Unified Team bolted to the lead in the gold medal count with six through Monday and produced a swimming star in Yevgeny Sadovyi, who won the men's 200-meter freestyle and anchored a triumphant all-Russian 4 X 200 freestyle relay team. China's spinning top, 13-year-old Fu Mingxia, easily won the women's platform diving, part of a 10-medal haul by that country. China shared the overall medal lead with the U.S., even though two American world-record holders, swimmers Jenny Thompson and Anita Nall, were upset.

Controversy, the Olympics' most dependable customer, wasted no time showing up. On Sunday the U.S. beat Japan in volleyball, 15-8, 11-15, 10-15, 17-16, 16-14, only to have the International Volleyball Federation uphold a Japanese protest and reverse the outcome a day later. Japan had been leading two games to one and 14-13 in the fourth game when Bob Samuelson of the U.S. received a second yellow caution card for snapping at officials. A red card and an ejection would have meant a technical point for Japan and the match. The federation, after a five-hour meeting, upheld Japan's contention that a red card and a technical point is mandatory on the second caution. The Americans, gold medalists in 1984 and '88, can still advance to the medal round.

Even as the competition began, fear lingered that the Molotov cocktail of nationalism would burst upon these Games. ETA, the Basque separatist group that has killed more than 700 people in its 24-year quest for independence from Spain, has promised to appear. GRAPO, a Spanish Marxist terrorist group, has sprung back to life and begun planting bombs, as has a Catalan independence-seeking band known as Tierra Lliure. But a rash of arrests in recent months, a phalanx of metal detectors and a 45,000-man display of Spanish militia and police—including helicopters, armored vehicles, offshore submarines and reportedly even policemen disguised as ice-cream vendors—stilled the blood-letters, at least for the first three days.

The Catalans, after infuriating the rest of Spain with an international media blitz that insisted the site of these Games is Catalonia, not Spain, were good campers once the show began. Clutching ticket stubs that some had paid as much as $7,000 to possess, they lavished a standing ovation upon the Spanish monarch rather than the derisive whistling that local officials had feared; it hurt none that Juan Carlos declared the opening of the Games in Catalan. They clapped and blinked back tears for the Spanish team as it circled the stadium behind flag-bearer and heir to the throne Prince Felipe, who looked pricelessly princely with his dashing smile and his hat tugged tight over his handsome brow. They bathed each of the new republics in warm simpátia. Only the entrances of the Iraqi and the American teams were met with whistles, but then they say that no one ever really wins a war.

Except, of course, when people spend $28 million and plan and practice for 2½ years to simulate one in front of cameras broadcasting to 150 TV stations worldwide. That was what the Barcelona Olympic Organizing Committee did, highlighting the most extravagant and ambitious spectacle the Games have ever seen with a battle between good and evil; quick now, guess who won? The show opened with a 21-gun salute and a sonic shriek, seven jets slashing the twilight with trails of colored vapor. Hundreds of yellow-beaked bird people and rainbow-colored flower people fled the stadium floor, and on came the sun people, as spectators obediently donned glittering sun masks and observed this fairyland through eye slits. Then things got really weird.

Spitting sparks, a towering, skeletal robot raced the length of the field. It was Hercules winning the first Olympic race, according to the metaphor manual handed out to all. Herc mounted the stage and confronted a white column, which symbolized, take your pick, human will or the end of the world. The column divided in two, symbolizing East and West. A stream of people wearing avant-garde costumes glittering with green, blue and silver flowed from the stage onto the stadium floor: presto, the creation of the Mediterranean Sea. At the stadium's opposite end a massive silver ingot appeared. Oars shot from its sides, and out popped a Greek galley, symbolizing cither the Olympic movement, according to the show's creators at their Friday press conference, or Mediterranean civilization, according to the metaphor manual. The boat's voyage across the sea was ambushed by a monstrous, sword-brandishing sea urchin, by giant clawed and horned crustaceans, by a fearsome black hydra and pterodactyls on stilts—all symbolizing hunger, illness, war, ignorance, ambition and their good buddies, the forces of evil. Miraculously some of the boat's crew survived and reached the stage, symbolizing the founding of Barcelona. If you were nearing the end of your first six-pack at home, god help you with the plot line, but if you sat back and let it happen to you, it was wild and wonderful theater, another classic moment in Barcelona's panting, sweating quest to prove This Is Not Spain, not to mention no place else in the universe.

The most gripping moment of the opening ceremonies actually was quite simple. The Olympic torch, trotted around the stadium by a pair of former Spanish medalists, basketball star Epi and canoe champion Herminio Menèndez, arrived upon the stage. The music, haunting and beautiful all night, turned bare. The blue fluorescent lights that the spectators had been waving went still. Limping from childhood polio, a 37-year-old archer from Madrid named Antonio Rebollo, a botanist by profession, approached the torch bearer. He dipped the arrow's point into the fire and drew back the bowstring; the darkened stadium tautened. The flaming arrow shot across 70 meters of night, up toward the cauldron. Bingo! The cauldron hissed into flames, the crowd exhaled in relief and the mayor, the king and the Olympic president all began pumping every hand they could reach, as if each of their reigns had been riding on that lonely arrow's arc.

The lights still low, the arena ringing with music by Cats composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, a long wrapped bundle was raced onto the field. Slowly it was unfurled, and a 125-yard-long Olympic flag covered the heads of 12,000 athletes, coaches and representatives, making all of them anonymous for a lovely moment, anonymous and one. Then the Dream Team, minus Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin, who had chosen to stay in their lush quarters in Barcelona, disengaged itself and snuck out of the stadium, whistles raining upon the players for their early exit so they could rest for Sunday's savaging of Angola and Monday's dismantling of Croatia.

But the party wasn't pooped. Six of the world's finest opera singers performed powerful lip sync onstage, and then body-shaking fireworks ripped the sky. The Bosnians cringed reflexively. They had left behind a weightlifting coach, Edo Živau, who had to have his gunshot-shattered ankle operated on in a Slovenian hospital. They had brought a 3,000-meter runner, Mersada Bulec, who had dodged sniper fire in Sarajevo while training. Some of them had cried during their lap around the stadium, but most had no tears left to give. "Do you know what I felt as the applause for us spread?" asked Izudi Filipovic, secretary general of the Bosnian Olympic Committee. "I felt the aggressors in Sarajevo watching our triumph on TV and sending new bombs on our people there in anger. One moment we were walking in the center of war and bomb shelters and genocide, in a city with no lights at night. And the next we are here, in a world of dreams, with everywhere light. We are emotionally spent."

As he spoke, thousands of fans were abandoning their rush home to stare in awe at the immense fountains and waterfalls that line the staircased hill of Montjuic, site of the Olympic Stadium. And the Dream Team was speeding through the night in a bus, back to their rooms in the $900-a-night hotel.

Tired smiles creased the Bosnians' faces. "No, we did not reach him today," said Filipovic. "But be sure, in the next days we will make it to Mr. Magic."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)