Publish date:


The Olympic experience has many different meanings, as this gallery demonstrates

Mark Witherspoon
United States

Mark Witherspoon was one of the favorites for gold in the 100-meter dash. He looked the part when he won his quarterfinal heat in 10.19.

But in the semis Witherspoon ran only 30 meters before he fell to the track, writhing in pain. He had ruptured his right Achilles tendon and was carried off on a stretcher with what doctors said could be a career-ending injury.

It was not the first time Witherspoon, a 28-year-old computer-graphics artist, had suffered an injury at the worst possible time. In 1987 he won the TAC 100, but a pulled hamstring during a heat of that year's Pan American Games sidelined him. Witherspoon's injury in Barcelona increased the chance that his Santa Monica Track Club teammate Carl Lewis, who finished sixth in the Olympic trials, would get to run the 4 X 100 relay for the U.S. this week.

Ivan Ivanov

A very satisfied smile spread across the face of one of the four Ivan Ivanovs on the Bulgarian Olympic team. With a combined lift of 584 pounds, the 5-foot, 114-pound weightlifter (his namesakes are an archer, a gymnast and a badminton player) won Bulgaria its first gold medal of the Barcelona Games, rewarding his coach with a fitting birthday present and earning himself $15,000 and a new car. Ivanov so outclassed his opponents in the flyweight division that he barely broke a sweat. Following his final lift, which guaranteed Ivanov first place even though it was 26½ pounds less than the weight he had lifted last year to win his third world championship, he said, "I could have lifted more, but my opponents were not so good that I needed to do more."

Ivanov came to Barcelona brimming with confidence. Except for a slip at the '91 European championships, he had finished first in every meet he had entered since 1988.

To celebrate his victory, he lifted glasses with his fellow weightlifters in the Olympic Village. Not champagne. Ivanov's beverage of choice was Johnnie Walker Red.

Carlos Front

The Spanish eight-oared shell finished last in a 14-boat field, but its coxswain, 11-year-old Carlos Front, distinguished himself as the youngest competitor in these Games. Young as he is, Carlos is no neophyte in a boat. He began his rowing career at the age of six with the help of his father, Bienvenido.

Papa Bienvenido happens to be the technical director of the Catalonia Rowing Federation. He was also reluctant to let Carlos try out for the national team. "It's a lot of responsibility for a boy," he says. That didn't faze Carlos. The Olympic team he joined was, in fact, the junior national team, which had gotten the bronze medal in the 1991 junior world championships. The idea was to groom that unit in '92 for a run at a gold medal at the '96 Olympics. The team's former coxswain had grown too big, and Carlos, a 4'11", 103-pound fifth-grader, fit perfectly.

For the record, Carlos is not the youngest Olympian ever. That distinction goes to a tiny French boy who was the coxswain for his country's rowing team in 1900. Though his name has been lost in the mists of history, he was known to have been younger than 10, perhaps as young as seven.

Zhang Shan

Skeet shooter Zhang Shan (hoisted by silver medalist Juan Giha of Peru, left, and bronze medalist Bruno Rossetti of Italy) won a gold medal and earned a footnote in Olympic history—she became the first woman ever to defeat a man in a shooting event. Unfortunately, she also earned a second footnote: She will almost certainly be the last woman to do so.

The International Shooting Union, which governs the only international sport besides equestrian and yachting that allows mixed-sex competition, has decided to drop mixed meets. The reason? Usually only a handful of women shooters are able to qualify against men for major competitions.

Nevertheless, Zhang set an Olympic record for females and males with 223 points out of a possible 225. A student in Shanghai, Zhang, 24, carries the nickname Little Miss Perfect at home. In the preliminary rounds in Barcelona, she was just that, hitting a perfect score of 200. Throughout the competition, she shot against 54 men and beat them all. When asked if her victory was all the sweeter because she had prevailed against men, she said quietly, "No, it only matters that I won."

Launi Meili
United States

At the Seoul Olympics, Launi Meili was leading the women's air-rifle competition going into the final round. She had set an Olympic record to that point. Then she fell apart. "I just got really nervous," recalls Meili. "I had put so much energy into the first part of the match that by the time the final rolled around, my energy level was at two percent. My mind was there, but I was shaking and I couldn't follow through." She plunged from first place to sixth.

In Barcelona, Meili was not shaking. She won the women's three-position rifle competition. What's more, she set an Olympic record with 684.3 points. Now, the three-position rifle competition, it must be admitted, is one of the more obscure of all the events that grace the Games. It consists of firing 20 shots from a .22-caliber standard rifle in a trio of postures: lying down, standing up and kneeling. The shooters fire 20 times in each discipline, and they have 2½ hours to complete the 60 shots. The event is held outdoors with targets at a distance of 50 meters.

Meili, 29, learned to shoot as a kid in Spokane, Wash., because her father was a hunter and wanted his children to be familiar with guns. She took up the sport seriously at Eastern Washington University and has set more than 100 American records. After her collapse in Seoul she was desperate to do well in Barcelona. "In the final round I was two points ahead of the pack," said Meili, "and I was trying to take the best shot I saw as soon as possible. I was a nervous wreck. Of course, I'm always a nervous wreck."

She was ecstatic at having redeemed herself for her performance in Seoul. "This was the culmination of every win I ever had—times 20,000," she said. Meili was all the prouder because she had become the first medalist since 1960 to use ammunition made in America.

Yael Arad and Oren Smadja

Israel has produced a Nobel Prize winner in literature and more than its share of celebrated scientists, generals and politicians. But it had never had an Olympic medalist until Yael Arad, 25, a judoist from Tel Aviv, earned the silver medal in the women's 134.5-pound class. She barely lost the gold to Catherine Fleury of France on a referee's controversial decision.

Arad immediately dedicated her medal to the 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team killed by Palestinian terrorists during the 1972 Games. She told reporters that before leaving for Barcelona she had visited the families of two of the slain athletes and received their blessings.

Arad's medal was not wholly unexpected—she finished third in the 1991 world championships—but what happened 24 hours later was. Oren Smadja, a 21-year-old judoist from Beersheba, won Israel's second medal, a bronze in the 156.5-pound class. Though talented, Smadja wasn't supposed to contend until the '96 Games.

Rodney Smith
United States

Watching Rodney Smith coldly stalk Cecilio Rodriguez of Cuba in the bronze medal match in the 149.5-pound division of Greco-Roman wrestling, it was difficult to think of him as a sensitive fellow who writes poetry. "I wasn't nervous, tired or scared," said Smith later. "I was in some kind of trance." With only 25 seconds left in the match, he drove Rodriguez to the mat for a near pin and a 6-3 win.

Smith, 26, was a decent high school wrestler but improved to become a Division III All-America at Western New England College. Three years ago, to help defray the expense of traveling to tournaments, he enlisted in the Army. He's now a sergeant at Fort Benning in Georgia.

"Of course," says Smith, "my first love is writing." His oeuvre consists of 150 poems, including one he composed to celebrate his bronze medal. It begins,

The wrath of Cuba was savage but grew weary.
Like a ravenous wolf I gorged myself on his fatigue.
In the end I had devoured him completely.

Mark Lenzi
United States

After six of the 11 dives in the three-meter springboard competition, Mark Lenzi, 24, stood third in the field of 12. Ahead of him were two veterans, Albin Killat, 30, of Germany and diving's quadrennial bridesmaid, Tan Liangde, 27, of China, who had finished second to Greg Louganis of the U.S. in the last two Olympics. Lenzi had no idea what the standings were, because he never checks his position or his scores during competition. On his seventh dive, Lenzi leapfrogged past Tan and Killat into first place.

He didn't know he had the lead, but he never gave it up. His ninth dive was a forward 3½ pike for a score of 83.700, the highest of the competition, and he nailed his next two, too. Poor Tan wound up second once again.

Many had assumed that when Louganis retired after the 1988 Olympics, U.S. men's diving would fall on hard times. It didn't happen. Louganis's assets were balletic grace and power, but Lenzi—who is a rather squat 5'5" and 145 pounds—compensates for his relative lack of grace by being more acrobatic.

After he climbed onto the victory stand to get his gold, Lenzi stomped hard on the floor as if to prove to himself he was really there. He was literally born on the Fourth of July, and as The Star-Spangled Banner sounded over the hazy vista of Barcelona stretched out below the Piscina de Montju‚àö√òc, he became the picture of a perfect patriot, standing at attention with his hand over his heart and tears in his eyes.