Here, finally, was a place
in which he could lose himself. Here was a village where 28 Mongolians lumbered around wearing hats that narrowed at the top to a little ball, like game pieces on a Parchesi board. A place where 7'4" Lithuanians and 350-pound Cubans crunched by in flip-flops, Senegalese judoists with doorway-filling shoulders flowed past in robes, and 70-pound gymnasts flitted under, around and over everyone like sprites.
Jim Courier looked at himself as he entered the Olympic Village two weeks ago. Strawberry-blond hair, freckles, a pale, slump-shouldered 175-pound body. Shorts, T-shirt, Cincinnati Red cap. Your corner-grocery boy grown up a few years, home from college for the summer. Surely here was a place where a man who had rushed from adolescence in a Florida tennis academy into the bubble of existence as a world-ranked player could be what he never had the chance to be—just one of the frat brothers, frolicking on a big, beautiful, palm-tree-covered campus. In the village of abnormality, he could at last be normal.
Swarms of bicyclists in neon-colored Lycra shot past him. He could hop on a bike and ride with them if he liked. Kenyans and Ethiopians with calves like fists trotted along the beachfront boardwalk. He could jog with them if he wished. Tall, blond swimmers whose shoulders flared out like Spanish fans were carrying towels toward the beach. No reason he couldn't take a dip in the Mediterranean with them. The life of a great tennis player during a tournament is so single-minded, so solitary, so sterile—not a single unnecessary motion to be expended, not a single distraction to be brooked. Back and forth to the courts in a chauffeured car, in and out of the interview room to feed the press 10 clichés, up and down the elevator between the hotel room and lobby restaurant for meals and naps. When the U.S. Olympic Committee had offered Courier, the world's No. 1 player, the chance to step out of the bubble for 2½ weeks, to sleep and eat and mingle with 10,000 of the world's best athletes, Courier had not hemmed or hawed or asked for the name of the nearest five-star hotel. He checked in four days early.
August 9, 1992
There was something almost purifying about carrying that first armload of dirty socks and underwear to the communal laundry room, where he joked with U.S. swimmers as he jammed his clothes into a machine and watched them tumble. Something edifying about waiting on a corner for a bus and tossing his rackets into the luggage compartment next to jai alai players' cestas and archers' bows; something exhilarating about slapping five and roaring with hundreds of Asians and Africans and Latins each time the Dream Team air-danced and dunked all over Angola on the Village's big-screen TV room. What a buoyancy a man set apart most of his life could feel, bobbing along as part of this great human tide. "Each meal there, seeing all those kinds of people, hearing all those languages," he said. "God, it's just incredible."
This was him. He had never been a big shot; he had grown up humble, middle-class. But it hit him, that first morning when he went to jog on the Village track and the whippets all welcomed him, something difficult even for the world's best tennis player to believe: The best athletes in the world are congregated here—and I'm one of them!
Simply strolling through the Village was a marvel. At the 16-lane bowling alley, jammed with people of every color, creed and tribe ("Estonia for bowling. Estonia, your lane is now open!"), members of the Chinese Taipei taekwondo team were locked in fierce combat among themselves—the loser would buy the tickets at the next day's bullfights. The Village Idiots, a 17-person troupe of actors who continually burst upon the scene with new skits for the athletes, came in dressed as cavemen, lined up like bowling pins and went crashing to the floor as one in their company rolled a sponge boulder at them.
Spaniards, Brits and Americans were crowded around Rad Rally, After Burner and Super Monaco GP in the video game room nearby, rooting on and ripping into each other. The South Africans were going bonkers over the aerial-dogfight simulator. Funny how the athletes capable of unleashing the planet's most astonishing explosions of energy sat there staring at the Village's 350 computer-game screens, motionless but for the clicking of a single finger, directing tiny figures on the screen to run, jump, swing, shoot, kick . . . precisely the things these athletes had been sent here to do.
In another game room, northern Europeans and Africans were bent over a six-lane slot-car track, the athletes from chaotic Third World countries ever so cautiously taking the turns, the ones from Germany and Holland hell-bent to bury their roadsters in the wall. Over in the music bar a trio of Spanish women was singing Karaoke. Four theaters, each showing two films a day, beckoned, along with a beachfront disco where fireworks painted the sky each night at 10.
The balconies of the athletes' apartments were festooned with flags and towels and drying underwear, the beach was dotted with women sunbathing topless. The cafeteria was open at all hours, 50,000 free meals to be attacked each day, cuisine to suit every gullet on the globe. There were countless machines full of free Cokes, M&M's and Mars bars, and more condom dispensers than at a Tennessee truck stop. And girls, girls, nearly 3,000 god-blessed girls. Wasn't the brain behind it all, Village cultural director Ignasi Rodriguez, telling people, "I want everyone who comes to this village to have a piece of love"? Most Olympic veterans were calling it the best village ever.
Courier leaned toward the microphone at a press conference the day before his first match and said, "It's great here to wake up every morning in the Village, where you can feel the pulse of the world's greatest athletes. I wouldn't miss staying in the Village for anything." People who had always considered tennis players to be the most spoiled, selfish, egotistical creatures in the athletic galaxy looked at each other and said, Hmmmm. . . .
The Dream Team never dreamed of staying in the Village; all of its members preferred the hotel, where, for $900 a night, they could eat and stroll the halls in peace. Carl Lewis, Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Leroy Burrell wanted no part of the Village. "Hey, Jim," American athletes kept calling to Courier as he walked by. "We really appreciate your staying here."
He nodded, he smiled, but he knew that living in the Village wouldn't be easy. Here he would be cramped in a small room on a single bed next to that of his teammate Pete Sampras. Here there was one TV in a common living room to share with Sampras, Michael Chang, coaches Marty Riessen and Tom Gorman, and team official Bob Garry. Here, above all, there was no air-conditioning. Each day, the temperature in Barcelona crept closer to 100. Most of the Village's windows had no curtains. By evening the apartment was a furnace. Courier, a heavy sweater, perched the fan near his head at night, turned it to high and lay there feeling the water trickle down his sides. He showered to cool off and reached for a towel, but it was brand-new and hard and absorbed no water. Finally, on Courier's fourth day in the Village, Sampras checked in, looked around—and checked out. Most of the other athletes couldn't afford the nearby Hotel Villa Olímpica at $300 a night. But a pro tennis player could.
Courier stared up at the ceiling. No. He wasn't going to cave in, he wasn't going to be typecast as another pro with a big forehand and a small mind. Hadn't he spent months studying French? Hadn't that victory speech he delivered at the French Open in the host country's native tongue in June proved that he was different? "This is a reality check for us," he said. "We need this. We live in fantasyland all year."
But something else was happening that he had never figured on. It astonished him during the opening ceremonies, as he was posing beside a French athlete in the stadium infield, when Charles Barkley came at him. "Outta my way, my man," Barkley thundered at the Frenchman with a wicked smile, "before I put an elbow in your heart!" Barkley wanted the space next to Courier; Barkley wanted a photo of himself and Courier. "And you know something?" said Courier. "If I hadn't forgotten my camera, I'd have been taking pictures of everyone, too." That sudden urge to gape at and squeeze next to someone famous, to cop a little sliver of their glow—everyone felt it, even world champions. Courier couldn't eat in the Village, couldn't walk around without being swarmed. "Mr. Jimmy, Mr. Jimmy, can I do a picture? Can you sign this?" Even among the elite there existed an elite, and he was in it. How could he say no to a world champion?
His first match, against Ramesh Krishnan of India, drew nearer. He needed to lie down, close his eyes and see it all happening. But there was always someone yakking on the living-room telephone outside his door, someone hooting on the street. He could cover his head with his pillow and sweat more, or go down to the air-conditioned common rooms and pose for a hundred more flash pops. "God," he said with a wince, "I like the idea of democracy if I get the benefits of it, if I get to be just like everybody else. But I don't. I thought I'd disappear here. But I can't."
The U.S. women's tennis team—Jennifer Capriati, Gigi Fernandez, Mary Joe Fernandez and Zina Garrison—checked out. Courier pursed his lips. The Villa Olímpica was just across the street. Virtually in the Village, just a strip of asphalt away . . . what could it matter?
No. So many things were happening outside his window: This was the center of the universe. Prince Albert of Monaco strolled by. Queen Sofia of Spain, Michael Douglas, O.J. Simpson and Evander Holyfield did, too. Rumors flew: one night, that the Hungarian women were stripping in front of their windows; another night, the Aussies. It was as the pseudonymous Spanish athlete Txiki Cuevas wrote in El Periódico, a local newspaper: "It has been said that the 'spectacle of asses,' which can be witnessed with a little patience and indiscretion, is 'almost as interesting as the opening ceremonies.' The dedication with which the athletes take care of their bodies guarantees that this exercise of voyeurism doesn't defraud those that practice it."
The computers were sizzling with sex, too. They were the hottest craze of the 1992 Olympic Village, athletes everywhere waiting in lines to have at them. An athlete simply typed in the ID number from the back of his or her credentials, a three-letter password code and the full name of the person being written to, in order to communicate with any athlete or volunteer at the Games. Everything a guy wanted to breathe to the French brunette cyclist who had just gone by, but didn't have the guts to, he could tap out on a keyboard, click F12 for "send" and voilà!
Strange and wonderful electronic linkups were occurring: Barkley writing to U.S. swimmer Dara Torres, apologizing for having failed to show up for one of the swimming finals; swimmer Jenny Thompson writing to Courier, lamenting having won a silver medal instead of a gold, and Courier sending his cheer-up back. "It's like drugs," said Torres. "We're all addicted. Some messages being sent are so dirty I couldn't even repeat them to you."
"Oh, yes, everyone is ligando [making liaisons] on these computers," said volunteer Marta Zazqui. "Look." She punched the keyboard. Up came an invitation from Spanish water-polo player Marco Gonzalez, filled with longing. "There are things we can't do through this apparatus," the message said. Zazqui wrote back, "Will meet you tomorrow at 4 at the Red Cross center. Don't say you can't because you haven't competed yet. The infatuation that I have caught for you is much stronger than I thought. I love you a little."
She punched another button and brought up a message from another Spanish water-polo player, the team's star, Manuel Estiarte: "You don't have to be timid," it said. "All the contrary. All is possible in this life."
Computer sabotage was breaking out. Australians were reading unsuspecting foreigners' ID numbers from their credentials, using them to get into their files and send counterfeit lust messages under the strangers' names to Aussie teammates. Africans and Arabs were learning how to use a computer for the first time, just so they wouldn't be left out. Others frowned and shook their heads. "My advice is to meet a girl's family and get married first," said 400-meter-runner Mohamed al-Malki of Oman, "not to meet her on any computer. Don't trust. Save energy. Avoid diseases. Win races. But ohhhh, my heart is crying. There is so much leg here!"
Courier sighed. "I have a girlfriend," he said. He gazed toward the beach, where Olympic sailors had reported seeing dead dogs and diapers floating just offshore. "It doesn't really matter," he said. "I'm not a tanning god." He didn't even consider the disco, where the cement dance floor was so hard that Zambian boxer Felix Bwalya said, "It was like someone was putting needles into me." The day before Courier's first match, he posed, signed autographs, went back to his room and sweated. "This heat," said Italian soccer player Renato Buso, whose team would soon flee to a hotel in Valencia, "will be the death of us all."
The next morning Courier walked onto Court 1. He tossed the ball into the air for his first serve. This was the Olympics? Why did he feel none of the sparks? What did this tournament mean to a tennis player, anyway? It wasn't a Grand Slam event; it had no bearing on the rankings. But, still . . . a gold medal. He won the first set 6-2, and then went flat and lost the second 6-4. Roars kept bursting from center court. Germany's Boris Becker—like Courier, determined to stay in the Village—was over there living the same deadness, finding himself suddenly fighting for his life against a Norwegian nobody. Courier prevailed in four sets. Becker won in five, and nearly five hours. Court temperature: 108°.
That night Chang turned on the faucet in their apartment at eight o'clock. The faucet coughed. No water. Goodbye, Chang. Now Courier was the only U.S. tennis player remaining in the Village. What if he had to play Sampras or Chang in the finals? What if they beat him because they were inside the bubble? No one would remember whose head had slept on what pillow a decade from now. All they would remember was whose head had bowed to receive the gold.
He took another walk. He looked up. There was Torres, the swimmer he had met in the laundry room—his teammate—clutching the gold medal she had just won! A great unexpected warmth welled up inside him, one he could never have felt in a hotel room: U.S.A.! U.S.A.! He slapped five with her and hugged her. Maybe he should accept playing less than his best, maybe he should sacrifice his game on the altar of the Olympic experience. The No. 1 seed went back to his room and sweated.
The next day Courier wavered. "Just depends," he said. "Just depends when the breaking point comes." Just like that, Stefan Edberg, the No. 2 seed, another big-name villager, was gone, losing 6-0, 6-4, 6-4 to Andrei Chesnokov of the Unified Team. Courier took a deep breath. He returned to his room. He tossed his clothes into a suitcase and walked across the strip of asphalt. He heard the elevator whoosh, the click of the key, felt the cool bath of air. The bubble. "You know," he said, "I think John Stockton [of the U.S. basketball team] is right. He said the Olympic experience isn't living with the world's best athletes. It's competing with and beating the world's best athletes. I'm not going to sacrifice my tennis for the Olympic 'experience.' "
But his heart stayed divided. Last Thursday, exhausted after having won a morning singles match and a five-set doubles match that went deep into the night, he trudged into the Village cafeteria at nearly midnight, trying somehow, like the other American tennis players who had checked into the hotel, to keep one leg in each world.
Then it happened. On Saturday afternoon Marc Rosset of Switzerland, ranked 37th in the world, stunned Courier 6-4, 6-2, 6-1. Courier did something he had never done after a tournament: He walked away without speaking to the press.
The U.S. Open was four weeks away. No one, nothing, would get inside that bubble.