Short stories, novel Olympics

MIKE LITTWIN

August 10, 1992|By MIKE LITTWIN

BARCELONA, Spain -- The idea is to try to explain the Olympics, but that's like trying to explain a rainbow. It's more and also less than what you might imagine.

We'll start with three scenes:

* Derek Redmond being helped around the track by his dad, who had run out of the stands to share in his son's pain and triumph.

* Carl Lewis taking the handoff and exploding to a world record in the 4 x 100 relay to win his eighth gold medal.

* This American boxer trying to buy a sandwich.

Maybe I should explain the last one. I was at the boxing venue (an Olympic term for building), trying to buy lunch. The boxer was trying to do the same, but he spoke no Spanish and the vendor spoke no English. After a few minutes of miscommunication, the boxer, much frustrated, turned to me:

"Hey, I'm trying to get a cheese sandwich. Can you help me?"

I said to the vendor in my one-year-of-college Spanish: "Sandwich, con queso?"

The vendor nodded. The boxer was encouraged. "Yeah," he said, "can you give me one of them queso things? Man, nobody speaks English here."

Well, yes, it's a foreign country. There are foreigners everywhere you look. Some of them do things a little differently.

For instance, there was this German, Dieter Baumann, who was a surprise winner in the 5,000 meters. When he crossed the finish line, he tried a cartwheel, but, because he had run about four miles, he didn't quite have a cartwheel left in him. He did sort of this barrel roll instead, popped up and headed to the German section of Olympic Stadium, where he led the crowd in cheers. Well, it wasn't quite a cheer. He was doing these knee-bends, and the Germans in the stands were knee-bending right along with him. It looked like Richard Simmons gone over the edge.

Of course, we do things that must seem strange to others. I mean, you try to explain Charles Barkley. Or this:

An American reporter gets out of a cab and says, in his best Butch Cassidy imitation, "Esto es un robo [This is a robbery]." As if from nowhere, five cops with Uzis appear. Does this sound like a good idea to you?

The Olympics take place over more than two weeks. You scribble notes to remind yourself what happened and what it meant. The Israelis winning their first-ever medal. The black Ethiopian winner and the white South African runner-up running a victory lap arm in arm after the 10,000. Sergei Bubka, a lock to win the gold medal, pulling a Dan O'Brien and no-heighting in the pole vault. Ron Karnaugh and his father's hat. But those are just snapshots.

The key to enjoying the Olympics is to look closely, but not too closely -- to invest in the trees, and not worry about the forest.

Face it, the Olympics are a vast forest of hypocrisy. They're about money more than anything else, a truth that makes a joke of any remaining hold amateurism is supposed to have on the Games. Everything is for sale. Plus, the Olympics promote the nationalism that the charter says they were supposed to help overcome. By the way, for those of you keeping score at home, the Unified Team, soon to break into many pieces, outscored the United States in the final medal count.

And yet, there are wonderful little stories: The Bosnian and Croatian shooters competing side by side. There was the Irish boxer who won his country's first gold medal in the sport. He leaped into the arms of his coach -- a Cuban. The fighter he beat -- also a Cuban.

The Irish fans came out in force at the boxing ring, waving the flag and singing Irish songs. My best fans, though, are the Brazilians. They're also always waving flags and singing, but usually at 3 a.m. on Las Ramblas, a mile-long avenue featuring souvenir shops, mimes, sidewalk cafes and -- always -- thousands of people.

My favorite scene on Las Ramblas came when Dream Teamer John Stockton, doing interviews for NBA Entertainment, asked a woman, "Do you know who John Stockton is?" She said, "Oh, yes, he's a very good guard."

Snapshots: Gail Devers crawling to the finish line. The look on Kim Zmeskal's face. Mike Powell's prayers falling three centimeters short. Freedom for Catalonia signs. Catalans rooting for the Spanish athletes.

More snapshots: The Dream Teamers in their $900-a-night hotel rooms. The whining volleyball players shaving their heads. Michael Jordan making loyalty to a shoe company into a crusade and having the nerve to make the flag a part of his protest.

These were the Olympics of steroid-abuse accusations, of the Russian assistant coach doing his Khrushchev imitation on the wrestling mat, of Anita Nall getting whisked away from her parents by an overzealous swimming coach. And this from the skewed perspective of U.S. swimming team director Dennis Pursley: "This meet was like a war."

It wasn't like a war at all, of course. That's the best thing about this particular Olympiad. There were 172 countries here. The cold war had ended. South Africa was welcomed back.

And I met a Bosnian woman from Sarajevo who was held for two weeks in one of those Serbian camps you've read about. She had to train during the shelling of her city. She finished last in her heat of the 10,000 meters here and said the result was less important than the fact that she could be here for her countrymen.

Stories large. Stories small. Stories from everywhere.

I like this one. Magic Johnson, the most popular athlete here, has a microphone stuck in his face from a Mexican TV station.

"Magic, what can you say to the people of Mexico?"

Magic: "Well, I've never been to Mexico. But tell 'em to hang in there -- and what's happening?"

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