The XXV Olympic Games hit their stride in Barcelona
Spain’s Summer Sensation
The XXV Olympic Games hit their stride in Barcelona
The excitement flowed like a wave. At the Picadero Restaurant, a modest Barcelona establishment with a single row of booths indoors and an island of tables beneath the trees outside, word that “el torche” was coming sent the handful of late diners, chefs and waiters hurrying into the street. Momentarily forgotten were half-eaten meals and incompleted orders. Distinctions between patron and server dissolved in the childlike delight of watching the flame that had been ignited by the sun in Greece pass by in the soft heat of the Spanish night. Bystanders applauded and snapped flashlit photographs of each other as the white-clad female torchbearer jogged past. Later, there would be time for skeptical reflection—for saying, as one waiter did, that the Olympic Games might be good for Barcelona but “muy malo”(very bad) for its taxpayers, and time for deploring the politics and commercialism that increasingly immerse the Games. But for this moment on the eve of their opening, the Olympic magic held strong.
The same sentiment was evident the following day as the XXV Olympic Games officially began with a flamboyant and fanciful ceremony at Barcelona’s Montjuïc Stadium. Under an evening sun, 65,000 people cheered an extravanza featuring clacking castanets, swirling señoritas, giant motorized figures, operatic tenors Placido Domingo and José Carreras—and an archer who officially lit the Olympic flame. The parade of athletes included those from Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia, marching under their own banners, and a team from South Africa, competing in the Games for the first time since 1960. Bearing the flag for the 300-plus Canadian contingent was Michael Smith, the 24-year-old decathiete and gold-medal hopeful. It was a fitting start to a 17-day event that will defeat even the most
energetic observer’s ability to capture every swirl of color or moment of drama; there are simply too many stories to tell, too many questions to ask.
Some—of the political variety—had already been answered. Would the besieged Bosnians trapped in war-tom Sarajevo reach the Games? Yes, the 27-member group of athletes and officials flew out in two small planes, arriving just six hours before the opening ceremonies. “We’re in paradise now, but we came from hell,” said weightlifting coach Mlajan Talie. Would athletes from the remnants of Yugoslavia—Serbians and Montenegrins—be allowed to compete? Yes, the International Olympic Committee decided—but only as individuals, without their flag or anthem. Other questions were logistic. Would dockworkers end their strike in time for medical teams to receive their equipment? Yes, but only after a delay of four days.
But the most gripping stories, as they should be, belong to the athletes. Canadian sculler Silken Laumann will learn whether her enormous courage in defying an injury that severed the muscles of her right leg in May have been enough to restore her to Olympic medal form. Longtime American star Carl Lewis, whose face gazes down from billboards across Barcelona endorsing Japanese electronics, will discover whether he still has the speed and strength to jump farther than anyone else on earth. Lewis’s former nemesis, Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson— who lost a gold medal to a steroid scandal at Seoul in 1988—will try to regain his reputation and win a medal he can keep. And Sandra Levy, a forward on the Canadian women’s field-hockey team, will try to surprise the world by capturing a medal in memory of her older brother Christopher, who died earlier this year.
Far greater attention will be paid to Canadian syncjironized swimmer Sylvie Fréchette, who is battling to contain her grief over a more recent tragedy. The 25-year-old Fréchette carries some of Canada’s highest hopes at Barcelona: the reigning world champion, she has won each of her past 12 competitions, scoring a record seven perfect 10s at the world championships in Perth, Australia, last year. But on July 18, she returned from training to the home in Montreal that she shared with sports journalist and former athlete Sylvain Lake—to find her companion dead, an apparent suicide. In quick succession, she telephoned 911, her mother and her trainer, Julie Sauvé. For the next three days, Sauvé told reporters last week, Fréchette wept almost constantly except when she was in the pool. She did not, however, stop training. And on July 22, she left Montreal to pursue her dream of capping her stellar career with an Olympic gold medal.
It was difficult to keep her mind on that goal, she acknowledged on the eve of the Game’s opening. “I don’t feel perfect,” said Fréchette, still dripping after emerging from a training session in Barcelona’s Club SantJordi pool, “but I’m getting my confidence back.” She had declined her psychologist’s offer to come to Spain to counsel her in the week before her event begins on Aug. 2. There will be plenty of time for grieving after the Games, she said. “It was my dream to come here, it was Sylvain’s dream. I felt I’ve worked so hard for that and I said, ‘I’m going to do it for me, for him, for my coach and for everybody who supported me across Canada.’ I felt I had to do it and I felt that’s what Sylvain wanted me to do.”
For Laumann, the Olympic calendar was especially unkind. Her event was to begin on Tuesday, cutting short the healing time for a leg that was severely damaged when a German boat plowed into hers during the warm-up for a competition in Germany on May 16. Although doctors told her that she could forget about competing at the Olympics, the defending world-champion single sculler was back in her boat, despite the pain, just 26 days after the accident. And last week, although she continued to need the support of a cane to walk, she was cautiously optimistic as she considered her chances on the Olympic rowing course at Banyoles, 125 km northeast of Barcelona. “I think I’m getting closer,” she said, adding: “I don’t think I’m as fast as I was before the accident.”
While Fréchette and Laumann demonstrated the meaning of dedica-
tion and courage to Canadians, Ben Johnson showed his continuing ability to fascinate the media. His presence on the Canadian team is a surprise in itself. After his brief three-day reign as the king of the Seoul Games ended in a positive test for the banned anabolic steroid stanozolol, few sports observers expected him ever to don his country’s Olympic uniform again. But after serving a two-year suspension from competition, Johnson established his claim to a place on the team by placing second—to Montreal sprinter Bruny Surin—in trials in June. Whether that burst of speed represents a return to his old form will become clearer when 100-m qualifying heats begin on July 31. But Johnson has already demonstrated that he still has a certain flair for notoriety: news reports indicated that while he had initially flown to Barcelona, he quickly left for Lisbon,
Portugal, to avoid the prying media as he completed his pre-race training.
Still, fellow sprinter Anthony Wilson, who will run with Johnson in the 4 x 100-m relay, denied that the former world-record holder was a source of friction on the team. “He’s a great guy,” said Wilson. “If anything he’s brought us closer.”
For all the media attention paid to Johnson, it paled beside the press and public mania over the American basketball Dream Team. “It is very much like travelling with 12 rock stars,” said Chuck Daly, coach of the squad that was expected to grab the gold with flair if not much suspense. But for most of the athletes who hope to bring
home more than a memory from Spain, the task will be nothing less than Olympian. Canadian decathlete Smith will need to maintain his focus with near perfection through each of his 10 gruelling events, if he is to beat the acknowledged favorite for the gold, American David Johnson. _ Canada’s other synchronized swimmers, the identical Vilagos twins Penny and Vicky, will need to put teammate Frechette’s private tragedy out of mind if they hope to strike gold. World champion Finn-class sailor Hank Lammens will need favorable winds as much as talent to beat the rest of the world fleet across the finish line in the seven races of his event.
And the right combination of factors could vault Canada’s volleyball team from its fifth-place world ranking onto the medal stand. “We’re not a world power,” acknowledged head coach Brian Watson, “but if anyone gives us even a little room, we’ll kick butt.” By contrast, for many other athletes kicking biftt is not an expectation. Alberta gymnast Jennifer Wood, 19, said on the eve of the Games that she has already met her own oldest ambition: “Ever since I was younger, I’ve always wanted to be the first Albertan to make the gymnastics team.” For her, as for each of the athletes competing under the searing Mediterranean sun this week and next, appearing at the Olympics is an achievement in itself. For them most of all, the Games remain magical.
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