Olympic athletes beat war and politics to compete


July 24, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

BARCELONA, Spain -- To understand the 1992 Summer Olympics, you must meet Matjaz Kozelj. Born in Yugoslavia, educated at UCLA, he swims for the newly reborn nation of Slovenia.

A year ago, bombs were dropped near his hometown of Maribor, and practice was canceled on account of war. But, now, he is in a village built for athletes, overlooking a sea, on the eve of the Summer Olympics.

There is a smile on his face. With one hand, he rubs his spiked blond hair. With the other, he offers a pin identifying his new country.

"This is where all the good athletes are supposed to go," he says. "All the best should compete. I don't think politics should ever again be involved."

There is a place for Mr. Kozelj at these games, because history's grandest and gaudiest Olympics hasn't been created by petty politics, but by revolution. The Germans' tearing down a wall with their bare hands, Nelson Mandela's walk from jail and Boris Yeltsin's stand on a tank set the stage for Barcelona and a giant party that will begin tomorrow night, when an archer shoots a flaming arrow into a ball of gas to ignite a caldron.

You want to see how the world has changed? Come here.

You've got 172 nations. A record. You've got more than 10,000 athletes. Another record. You've got Albanians, Cubans and South Africans. You've got Croatians and Lithuanians. You've got Yugoslavs competing as individuals for something called the Independent Team, and former Soviets bound together on a Unified Team.

You've got pros competing for bucks that flow around world markets. Amateurism, a vestige of the British class system used by the haves to cut out the have-nots, is dead, replaced by the freest market in the world.

So there is room in the Olympics for Michael Jordan and Steffi Graf.

Russian gymnasts get paid. So do Chinese divers, Nigerian sprinters and Malaysian badminton players.

Even Anita Nall, the 16-year-old swimming superstar from Towson, receives cash each time she sets a world record.

And to bankroll the show -- the 257 gold medals worth $5,000 each, the millions in training, the billions in construction -- you've got corporate sponsors. They want to sell you Coca-Cola, Nikes and Mars bars. They want you to believe in Olympic ideals and multinational commerce.

But do not grow cynical. Under the veneer of Olympic merchandising are the dreams that make athletes weep and crowds shout with joy.

Look, and you will find a South African marathoner Jan Tayu, whose name means Lion of Kalahari. Before this week, he never had flown more than two hours, never been outside the borders of his country. But when the walls of apartheid crumbled, Mr. Tayu and other South African athletes were welcomed back to the Olympics after a 32-year ban.

"We must go," he said. "It is like new babies being born."

Discover the men of Iraq. They served on the front lines of a trench war against Iran. They watched 18 months ago as American missiles and bombers leveled their towns. Weightlifter Nazar Kadir couldn't lift iron for months. His gym in Musel was bombed.

"We don't hate Americans," Mr. Kadir said. "We are here to play. We are here for fun."

There is Pablo Morales, an American swimmer with tufts of gray in his hair. Four years ago, he failed to make the Olympic team. He retired and went to law school. But when his mother grew sick and later died, he was lured back to his sport, drawn to the 100-meter butterfly and the pursuit of past glory.

"This is the story of someone who has been knocked off the block and who has re-emerged," he said. "But I feel more of what I feel inside and what drives me. What has driven me is just to make the Olympic team. I didn't make it just to exorcise demons."

From Algeria comes the "little gazelle of Constantine," runner Hassiba Boulmerka, who defies Muslim fundamentalists, racing with arms and thighs uncovered, winning with an unshackled spirit and a long, loping stride.

Follow Francie Larrieu Smith, 39, breaking one barrier of age by running a race once thought too long, too tough and too demanding for women -- the marathon. She'll carry the American flag in the opening ceremonies.

Evelyn Ashford, 35, will sprint in the 100 while her 7-year-old daughter watches from the stands.

And watch as 12 American millionaires, led by a superstar-turned-underdog, show the world how basketball is truly played. Lithuanians had to raise money to get here. Angolans had to re-emerge from a civil war. Former Soviets had to cobble together a team. But has anyone traveled a longer road to Barcelona than Magic Johnson? He has the virus that causes AIDS. But he still has the spirit that can make the Olympics soar.

How far has the world come?

Listen to Rob Stull, a modern pentathlete from Austin, Texas. Four years ago, he competed in Seoul, South Korea, and befriended Wahktang Yagorshvili, the bronze medalist from Georgia in what was then the Soviet Union.

When the Soviet empire vanished, Mr. Yagorshvili sought shelter in the United States. Mr. Stull made him his coach and got him a visa. But Mr. Yagorshvili's wife, Regina, and year-old baby, Monica, were left behind. And, on a chilling day last winter, Mr. Yagorshvili watched CNN, horrified, as his street in Tibilisi was blown apart. His family survived and eventually emigrated to the United States.

They'll watch the Olympics in Austin. Mr. Stull will compete in Barcelona.

"You know, it was a lot of hard work to get them out," Mr. Stull said. "But friends help friends. That is the real spirit of the games. When he's 80, his grandchildren will ask,'How did you get to America?' And he'll say, 'There was this guy I met at the Olympics and . . . ' "

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