Star-filled, dramatic L.A. Olympics were like a Hollywood epic
Los Angeles — The Games of the XXIII Olympiad were ultimately like a Hollywood movie epic, big, bold, and, yes, beautiful. They also had their heroes, heroines, and dramatic climaxes, of course, as well as moments of pathos and poignancy.
Carl Lewis led the marquee with his feat of winning four track and field gold medals to equal Jesse Owens's famed 1936 performance. Other headliners included gymnasts Mary Lou Retton and Koji Gushiken, decathlete Daley Thompson, diver Greg Louganis, swimmer Michael Gross, marathoner Joan Benoit, hurdler Edwin Moses, sprinter Valerie Brisco-Hooks, and runner Sebastian Coe.
As for the poignant scenes, it would be hard to match those provided in two women's races new to the Olympics, the marathon and the 3,000 meters. Switzerland's Gabriela Andersen-Schiess tugged at our emotions as she staggerd to the finish of the former, while Mary Decker and Zola Budd were the tragic actors in the latter event, which saw both of their Olympic dreams tripped up in a tangle of the American woman's spiked shoes and the South African-born teen-ager's bare feet.
For a moment, however, let's get back to those three B's.
Bigness was evident in many ways, from a multitude of athletes representing a record 140 countries to the 220 sports events scattered about a huge backlot that encompassed the L.A. area and points beyond.
Boldness was a factor in the way a group of private citizens and businesses pulled together to put on a spectacle that no one wanted, and did it so well that concerns about traffic, smog, and security basically melted away. Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee, gave the Games a ''10'' for their exemplary organization.
The L.A. Games were beautiful too, both on the outside, with magnificently decorated venues, and on the inside, with a positive energy that the Olympics seem to foster.
Of course, one can't dismiss the fact that a boycott by the Soviet Union and other Eastern bloc nations diluted the competition in certain areas, but the show went on grandly without them, actually opening the door for some less powerful athletic countries to grab a bit of glory.
But to paraphrase an old Hollywood title, the overriding theme of the two weeks was ''Play it again, Uncle Sam.'' The United States not only threw the party, but starred in it as well.
The deepest and best prepared group of American athletes in history entered the Olympics with a huge appetite for medals. They would have won their share even without the boycott, but they wound up practically hoarding them, winning a record 83 golds and 174 total medals.
William Simon, president of the US Olympic Committee, spoke proudly of this ''embarrassment of riches'' and discounted criticism that flag-waving American fans were overly chauvinistic.
''I don't think patriotism is a dirty word. I think it's nifty,'' he said. ''I'm proud to be an American and proud of our athletes, and if some view that cynically, tough.''
Attendance surpassed 5.2 million, a spectacular total underpinned by strong local support. Californians in a sense were turning out to cheer their own Olympic entry, since nearly half the US delegation hailed from the state, including every member of the water polo team. These poster boys, incidentally, went undefeated, yet ended up with a silver medal. They tied Yugoslavia 5-5 in the final, but lost the gold on the basis of total goals throughout the tournament.
As expected, the US dominated such sports as swimming, boxing, and basketball. But spurred on by pro-American spectators, athletes in other sports rose to the occasinn as well, picking off medals where they often aren't forthcoming.
For example, Americans grabbed off first-ever or rare medals in cycling, judo , Greco-Roman wrestling, volleyball, and gymnastics.
The latter sport produced one of the Olympics' most dynamic performers in all-around champion Mary Lou Retton. Her gold was the first individual medal won an American woman in the sport.
Sporting a toothpaste smile and the muscular thighs of a short-yardage running back, she bounded and somersaulted her way to additional rewards.
With silvers for team and vaulting competitions, plus bronzes in floor exercise and uneven bars, she was nominated ''Least likely to make it through the airport metal detector.'' In fact, her five medals equaled the performances of only two other American women, swimmer Shirley Babashoff in 1976 and track star Babe Didrikson in 1932.
Before the Games even ended, she had gone on the ''Tonight Show'' and been feted back home in West Virginia.
Julianne McNamara, Peter Vidmar, and Mitch Gaylord were other gymnasts who emerged as household names, particularly after the latter two led the US men to a startling team gold.
The Soviet Union, of course, normally would have been prominent in this sport , but Romania, China, and Japan provided plenty of legitimately stiff competition. The Romanian women, in fact, had their own teen-age superstar in Ecaterina Szabo, who won three individual events, lost narrowly to Retton in the all-around, and led her companions to the team gold for a medal collection at least as impressive as Mary Lou's. China earned medals in both team competitions , while Japan produced the men's all-around winner in Gushiken.
The very presence of Romania and China, meanwhile, lent the Olympics a welcome element of universality. Romania's participation not only demonstrated its independence from the Eastern Bloc, but provided an opportunity to flex a fair amount of athletic muscle. Its 20 golds were second only to the United States in that category, while its 53 medals, including 10 in women's track and field plus many in rowing and weightlifting, made it the third most decorated country overall behind the US and West Germany (59).
China, which sent its first full-fledged team, wasted no time in getting on the board with a free pistol victory as the competition began. Altogether the Chinese took home 32 medals, an indication that this giant has awakened and should rapidly increase in athletic stature.
The ''friendship first, competition second'' philosophy seems to have undergone some revision, with the two receiving rather equal emphasis. There was certainly no ''tanking'' in the name of diplomacy. Just ask the American women's volleyball team, which went down to defeat in three straight games in the final after earlier defeating this same Chinese team. Chinese gymnasts, weightlifters , and divers performed admirably too. Through modern trainng techniques, including film study, they came thoroughly prepared.
Far from automatons, though, the Chinese were subject to the usual athletic letdowns. As noted, the women's volleyball team stubbed its toe once, and Zhu Jianhu, the high jump world record holder, had to settle for a bronze.
To some extent, these Olympics were a geography lesson for those watching the opening or closing ceremonies. Many of the countries needed an introduction. In fact, 20 were making their first-ever appearance in the Games. They ranged from Qatar, with 30 athletes, to Bangladesh, with one.
It wasn't the opportunity to visit Disneyland that brought them, but the chance to legitimize their place in the world community. The infusion of new name placards was the outgrowth of the IOC's Solidarity Program, which has encouraged wider participation, especially by Third World nations, by picking up part of the tab. The efforts of athletes from these countries can be every bit as inspiring as those of the medalists. Occasionally, however, they are woefully lacking in refinement. For instance, in a 400 meter heat a Nigerian runner found himself cut off by Secundino Borabota of Equatorial Guinea, who didn't realize lane assignments prevailed throughout the race.
Only one country in the world is barred from the Games, and that's South Africa because of institutionalized apartheid. But South Africa's presence was indirectly felt here, with the 84-lb. Budd in the 3,000 and Sydney Maree, a former South African, slated to run for the US in the 1500. Maree, however, withdrew at the last minute due to a recurrent injury.
Physical difficulties also shortchanged the efforts of two other prominent runners, Brazil's Joaquim Cruz of Brazil and Britain's Steve Ovett. Cruz, looking much like Cuba's long-striding Alberto Juantorena, beat Coe in the 800 meters, but had to scratch from the 1500.
Coe won the latter race, becoming the first runner to win at that distance in consecutive Olympics. Steve Cram, the second-place finisher, later paid tribute to Ovett, the third member of the British contingent, who gamely ran most of the final before the same physical difficulties that led to his collapse at the end of the 800 recurred. ''He almost deserves a medal for what he tried to do,'' said Cram.
Gabriela Anderson-Schiess, in that case, surely deserved a medal for what she did do, which was to complete the women's marathon after the heat of the day had taken a disturbingly graphic toll. Her tortuous finish stood in stark contrast to the exuberance Joan Benoit exhibited in winning, but as controversial as it was, the Swiss runner's last lap spoke of uncommon perserverence.
There were different interpretations placed on the effort later, but it still seemed to embody that ancient Greek saying, ''Never ask for victory, ask only for courage. For if you endure the struggle you bring honor to yourself; but most of all, you bring honor to us all.''
Of course, for mastery of his events no one could match Lewis, who made winning four golds look easy. The first of these came in the 100 meters, then came the long jump, 200 meters,and 4 x 100 relay, which was the only event in which he, along with his teammates, claimed a world record.
Lewis's refusal to try for a new mark in the long jump actually caused a negative reaction from Coliseum spectators, many of whom felt Carl owed them a show for the $60 their tickets cost. But after leaping 28 ft. 1/4 in. on his first jump and fouling on his second, Lewis passed on his last four attempts, confident that no one would beat him and content not to risk injury halfway through his heralded quest.
Asked his reaction to the boos showered upon him during the long jump, he replied, ''Most people are just not well-versed in the sport. But their boos were in certain ways flattering, because it indicated they wanted to see more of me.''
One athlete the Coliseum crowds saw more of than they ever expected was Valerie Brisco-Hooks, who came seemingly out of nowhere to win three gold medals , equaling Wilma Rudolph's achievement at the 1960 Rome Olympics. A young mother , Brisco-Hooks also became the first runner in Olympic history to win both the 200 and 400 meters, later adding a third gold in the 4 x 400 relay.
Edwin Moses only ran one event, but the pressure was incredible to extend his victory streak in the 400 meter hurdles to 90 finals. The winner of the 1976 Olympic title came through with a decisive win - then indicated that the 1988 Seoul Olympics are also in his plans.
Daley Thompson, a cheerful British bloke, also loomed as a heroic figure by repeating his decathlon triumph of four years ago, and beating West Germany's world record holder Juergen Hingsen in the process. You had to go to Bob Mathias in 1948 and 1952 to find the only other repeat decathlon winner.
Ulrike Meyfarth of West Germany was not to be outdone in the outstanding accomplishments department. The high jump champion 12 years ago in Munich, she won again by clearing 6 ft. 7 1/2 in.
After many setbacks, American Evelyn Ashford finally claimed the unofficial title as the world's fastest female sprinter by winning the 100 meters in 10.97 seconds, and later added a second gold in the 4 x 100 relay.
West Germany's Gross, winning two gold medals and just missing two others (one individual, one relay), emerged with the most impressive collection of swimming hardware.Other swimmers doubling in individual gold were Canada's Alex Baumann, America's Rick Carey, and US women Tracy Caulkins, Marty T. Meagher, and Tiffany Cohen. But perhaps the most popular victory was that of Rowdy Gaines, a potential superstar of the boycotted Moscow Olympics, who retired, came back, and won the men's 100-meter event plus a relay gold.
Louganis put on a dazzling show in copping both the men's springboard and platform diving golds, while in team competition the men's and women's basketball teams overwhelmed all oppositin and the men's volleyball team upset Brazil for a gold medal that practically caused the the Long Beach Convention Center to split at the seams.
But although Americans were in the spotlight as almost never before, it would be a mistake to conclude that foreign athletes were ignored, even by supposedly one-track local fans. Huge crowds, including nearly 102,000 for France's 2-0 defeat of Brazil in the gold medal game, turned out for soccer games with no built-in US rooting interest at the Rose Bowl.
And in a moving scene of recognition, a Coliseum crowd gave a standing ovation to a last-place El Salvadoran race walker as he churned determinedly on far behind a pack that had already exited the stadium. It was not condescending salute in any way either, but a genuine display admiration for the heart of a faceless competitor.