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Original Issue

Barcelona Was Pure Gold

What a relief to be able to enjoy an Olympics without international tension

There was more pure pleasure to be found at the Barcelona Gaines than at any other Olympics in living memory. This was due to the elegance of the host city and the splendor of the facilities it provided for the Games, and also to the politically clean quality of the competition. For the first time in more than 40 years, the Summer Olympics were contested without East-West bitterness poisoning the atmosphere. There were no boycotts, no battling ideologies, no bad guys, no good guys, no athletes forced to perform as surrogate cold warriors.

The medals won were still tabulated by nation and celebrated with flags and anthems. But at the Barcelona Games success seemed less a measure of a country's political superiority than of its blessed good luck to have had a splendid individual athlete or two, or three, or more, born within its borders.

Never have so many countries (64) been blessed by Olympic medal winners or by winners of at least one gold medal (37). The old marks of 52 and 31, respectively, came in Seoul in 1988, and the standards before that were 48 and 25, from Munich in '72, the last time the Olympics were free of boycotts. Of course, several of the nations whose athletes won medals in Barcelona either did not exist or did not participate in '88—Croatia, Slovenia, Cuba, North Korea, South Africa and the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania among them.

The biggest winner in the medal standings was not a nation at all but a cobbled-together alliance of 12 bickering former Soviet republics, whose medals were counted together for the last time. The Unified Team won 112 medals, 45 of them gold, but had the members of that team represented their republics—as they will in future Games—those medal totals would have been greatly diluted. The golds won by individual athletes, for example, would have been shared by eight republics, with totals ranging from Russia's 16 to one each for Azerbaijan, Moldova and Tadjikistan.

Despite the Unified Team's great success in competition, its only unifying motive seemed to be the republics' desire to go their separate ways—fast. After endless squabbles about money and the provincial makeup of the team, Aleksandr Koslovski, deputy director of the Russian Olympic Committee, said, "From the beginning each republic has been pulling the blanket over to its side of the bed. We are a unified team for the last time."

That means the U.S., runner-up in both total medals (108) and golds (37), now possesses what is by far the best "real" Olympic team on earth.

Some pessimists may have judged the Americans' performance in Barcelona as being so-so because of several defeats suffered by heavily favored headline performers—swimmers Janet Evans, Matt Biondi and Jenny Thompson; track stars Michael Johnson and Dave Johnson; the women's basketball team; and boxer Eric Griffin, among others.

But, in fact, even though these athletes fell short, the U.S. take was higher than it was in Seoul (94 medals total, including 36 gold) and in Munich (94 and 33). Indeed, Barcelona was a veritable landslide for the U.S. when compared with the 1992 Winter Games in Albertville, where the team had a pitiful showing, finishing with just 11 medals.

And what is to be made of the performances by the teams from Germany (82 medals, including 33 gold) and China (54 and 16), which finished third and fourth, respectively, in the medal standings? After the Berlin Wall fell late in 1989 and the reunification of East and West Germany became inevitable, Olympic experts looked at the combined harvest of medals the two Germanys had brought home from Seoul—142 in all, 48 golds—and predicted a blitzkrieg in Barcelona. It didn't happen. In fact, the combined German team collected 20 fewer medals in Barcelona than East Germany alone grabbed in Seoul (102). By contrast, China, though it remains under a heavy totalitarian thumb, saw its athletes improve tremendously since the last Olympics, almost doubling their take from Seoul (28) and tripling the number of golds (5) they won in 1988.

How is all of this to be explained? Dr. LeRoy Walker, 74, the wise and venerable former U.S. Olympic track coach who is expected to be elected president of the U.S. Olympic Committee in October, says, "It's not realistic to look at ideology or new world orders or drugs to explain what has happened. It is mainly a matter of coaches. The Unified Team is still on top because it held on to many of the best coaches from the old Soviet Union. Germany is down because many of the very good coaches who ran the East German system were not hired in the West. Some of them helped train the Chinese. Some Russian coaches went there, too.

"It's not surprising to see China winning—with more than a billion people, the Chinese ought to be winning. Once they grasped the fact that they couldn't continue to demand a rigidly egalitarian existence and that they had to let the elite rise to the top—as elite Olympic athletes must—they began to improve."

God only knows what lies ahead for the Olympics. Scandal and corruption have a way of popping up when least expected, and the temptation to use the Games as an arena for political conflict is always great. For now, let's rejoice that we were given the wondrous Games of Barcelona.