LeRoy Walker, the U.S.'s chef de mission at the Olympics and nominee as the next president of the U.S. Olympic Committee, opened a can of worms last week when he proposed that all members of future U.S. teams be made to reside in the Olympic Village. Walker, who had heard countless complaints from U.S. athletes about the luxury accommodations enjoyed by many of their more famous compatriots, said that those who live outside the Village are showing disdain for the Olympic experience. "It's very simple," he said. "If you are an Olympian, you are a member of a team. I am opposed to any exceptions; I don't care who you are."
The most conspicuous absentees from the Olympic Village were, of course, the members of the Dream Team, who stayed at the $900-a-night Ambassador Hotel. That seemed extreme, but so did the Village, with its small rooms, lack of privacy and absence of air-conditioning. Besides, for decades Olympic athletes of means from many countries have chosen less spartan surroundings than the Village. That didn't make these athletes any less Olympian.
The members of the U.S. women's basketball team were offered the same accommodations as their male counterparts, but they preferred the ambience and camaraderie of the Olympic Village. Good for them. Also bad for them. Said Lin Dunn, an assistant coach on the U.S. women's team, "Being in the Village is special. But when the only air you're fanning in your room is hot air, when the only showers you take are cold, I'm not so sure we'd do this again. We're people used to air-conditioning."
To his credit, Walker stayed at the Village. But he also had a room at the $400-a-night Hotel Victoria to freshen up for USOC meetings there. For him or any other USOC official to suggest that all American athletes stay in the Village is at best unrealistic and at worst hypocritical. Those who demand uniform accommodations for Team USA are blowing hot air.
Members of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) walked around Barcelona wearing buttons with WHATIZIT written on them. People assumed it was simply a reference to the oft-asked question, "What will be the mascot of the '96 Games?" But as people found out at the closing ceremonies, Whatizit was more than a way to stir people's curiosity; it was the answer to the question.
Created by DESIGNefx, a subsidiary of Crawford Communications of Atlanta, Whatizit is a computer-generated blue blob that can permutate into any shape. For example, a computer can turn Whatizit's basic body into a soccer ball or a basketball or even a taxi cab. Whatizit also has five Olympic-rings (three on its tail, two over its eyes), and it leaves a trail of stars in its wake to symbolize the Olympic spirit.
Before settling on Whatizit, ACOG rejected more than 1,000 mascot suggestions: squirrels, possums, peanuts, peaches and even Willie B., the famous TV-watching gorilla at the Atlanta Zoo. The rough design for Whatizit was agreed upon about three months ago, and, according to ACOG vice-president Ginger Watkins, the secret was so closely guarded that "our motto was, If we show it to you, we have to kill you."
IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch, who has a stuffed prototype of Whatizit in his office, is said to love the mascot. Says ACOG president Billy Payne, "This mascot gives us a lot of flexibility. I mean, he is Mr. Personality. We believe Whatizit is going to be very popular. At least, everybody we've shown it to so far likes it."
However, judging from the reaction of many puzzled spectators to the man-sized version of Whatizit that paraded around at the closing ceremonies, not everybody likes it. Willie B., where are you?
Among the items left behind at the Olympic Village's lost and found office were clothes, a check (for $40,000), eight certificates of femaleness, three wool shawls (presumably because they were not needed in the 90° heat) and a rice cooker. Still, the strangest—and biggest—leftover was an archer's bow, along with a set of arrows.
Eyeing the Finish
Pyambuu Tuul was understandably nervous at the start of the Olympic marathon on Sunday. As the only member of the Mongolian track and field team, the first Mongolian ever entered in the marathon and Mongolia's last shot at a gold medal, the 33-year-old Tuul wanted to turn in a strong performance. "I do not want to lag too far behind all the fantastic runners," he said through two interpreters—one turning Mongolian into Russian, the other, Russian into English. True, the race would be tough, but it's difficult to imagine any 26-mile run presenting a greater test than the one Tuul had already been through.
Tuul was a construction worker when he lost his vision during an explosion in his hometown of Ulan Bator in 1978. After two unsuccessful operations, he gave up hope of seeing again. Then the New York Achilles Track Club, which promotes athletics for the disabled, invited him to participate in the '90 New York Marathon. Led by a guide, Tuul walked most of the way and finished in slightly more than five hours. The club also arranged for a cornea transplant for Tuul, which was performed in New York in January 1991.
The first thing Tuul saw when the bandages were removed were the eyes of his doctor. "They were blue," he says. "I'm usually a pretty mellow person, but at that moment I was overjoyed." Tuul then saw the faces of his wife and six-and eight-year-old daughters.
Tuul was the last runner to finish the Olympic marathon, in 4:00:44, but 25 of the 112 marathoners had already dropped out. That gave him the distinction of being the last competitor of the '92 Games. Tuul hopes his participation in Barcelona will inspire his countrymen. "If I run in Atlanta in '96," he says, "I hope I'll have some other Mongolians with me."
Chip Out of the Old Blocks
Unlike other sports in the U.S., track and field rarely produces a second generation of athletes. Chip Jenkins, who was part of America's gold-medal-winning 4x400 relay team in Barcelona, is the son of Charlie Jenkins, who won a gold medal in the 4x400 at the 1956 Games. Before Jenkins, the last U.S. Olympic track and field athlete to follow in his or her parent's footsteps was Russ Hodge, a decathlete in the '64 Games, whose mother, Alice Arden, high-jumped in the '36 Games.
Forget faster, higher, stronger. Pin trading is the event for those of us too hopelessly sedentary to go for the gold. So we go for bigger, brighter, scarcer.
In Barcelona, Olympic pins seemed to come in sizes that were inversely proportional to the size of the country that issued them. The Taiwanese, for example, traded a huge rectangle, while the mainland Chinese offered a red bauble that was tiny. Those who had seen basketball player Oscar Schmidt of Brazil launch most of his team's shots weren't surprised to find that he had a pin of his own. It was mine for one featuring a caricature of Larry Bird, Schmidt's favorite player.
In light of recent geopolitical developments, unprecedented heraldry graced many of the pins exchanged in Barcelona. The Unified Team pin was sought after because these were probably the only Summer Games in which that team will compete, and the Croatian pins, which looked like something you would find in a box of Rice Chex, were also in demand.
My biggest pin thrill wasn't in picking up either of those. Since first surrendering to this sickness in 1988, I have had a vague goal of acquiring one pin from every country in the Olympic movement. A great moral dilemma ensued: What to do about South Africa, a nation banished from the Olympics for 32 years but for which pre-1960 pins existed. In Seoul I bartered for a springbok with rings but felt dirty about it, as if I had somehow violated sanctions. Thus I was delighted in Barcelona when I picked up the two pins for South Africa's newly integrated National Olympic Committee—one white, one black. I'm keeping both.
The next time I'm told to get a life, I can tell myself that the life I don't have is now a bit more honorable. Anyone want a springbok with rings?
"What is it?" It's the Atlanta Olympic mascot, Whatizit.
Tuul was the last competitor in the Games.
Pins from Taiwan (top), China, Oscar and two from South Africa were coveted in Spain.
[Thumb Up]To Mel Rosen, coach of the U.S. men's track and field team, for resisting pressure from several of his athletes to change the makeup of the 4x100-meter and 4x400-meter relay learns. The two teams Rosen selected set world records.
[Thumb Down]To the International Equestrian Federation, for constructing a dangerous show-jumping course in Barcelona. Veterinarians said the circuit was too difficult, and spectators demanded refunds after several top jumpers opted not to compete on it.
They Said It
Mike Evans, U.S. water polo player, on being ejected for kicking Jordi Sans of Spain in the face during a semifinal game: "That's what I get for kicking Sans in his face."
Cho Youn Jeong, a South Korean archer who won two gold medals in Barcelona, explaining how she combats nervousness before a competition: "I take long walks at night through the cemetery. It calms me down."