Where Gold Is Gold

July 24, 1992

This is the greatest Olympics ever -- with the best, the most and the farthest-out of everything. Records will fall like autumn leaves, revenue cascade like Niagara. For the top events, some 3.5 billion people will watch. They do things right in Barcelona. This 25th modern Olympiad is the first in which the gold medals will be solid gold.

Some 10,000 athletes from 172 nations -- and the gold to anyone who can name all 172 -- will compete in 29 sports all over the beautiful city of Barcelona and Catalan countryside. They will do it in the fierce Mediterranean heat and humidity, as bad as Baltimore in August. This is the Olympics where the interest of the athlete and ideal of sport won out over national politics -- nearly.

The South Africans are back, integrated, having been excluded for racism since 1960. Latvia, which last competed in 1936 and Lithuania, not since 1928, are back from the dead. Also returned are the boycotters: Albania, absent since 1972, and Cuba, North Korea and Ethiopia, last seen in 1980. The Russians and other Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) nationals without republic teams will compete, as they did last winter, for the "Unified Team." The Yugoslavians, meaning Serbs and Montenegrins, were going to be the Independent Team. (As in "Go Independent! Beat Unified!")

Then the U.N. Sanctions Committee decreed -- and the International Olympic Committee diplomatically concurred -- that to punish Yugoslav aggression, the Independents could not have teams or march in ceremonies, but may compete in individual sports. A reasonable compromise, but rough on the defending world champion Yugoslav water polo team and the stellar Yugoslav women basketball players, who will not be seen.

Still, it is the most inclusive Games. The likelihood of terrorism is diminished. Some national performances will be down, thanks to the collapse of statism in sports in Communist Europe and of drug enhancement in former East Germany, now part of the German team. But Cuban boxing will be as good as ever. To find the world's best, bans against professionalism are lower, but not consistent.

Soccer will feature professionals under 23 years old. Basketball sees the American stars of the NBA, conveniently off season. Baseball could not do the same without depleting the American pastime, so the U.S. team of '92 college grads is underdog to Cuba and perhaps Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. Kayaking and team handball are no longer the most offbeat activities. This Olympics features pelota and roller hockey -- both big in host country Spain -- as demonstration sports.

It is daft to put this much this close together in a single fortnight every four years, tempting every kook and terrorist to butt in for media access, but they have done it again, and with fewer apparent pitfalls. So go for it: May all 10,000 competitors do their personal best and win their very own gold.

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