If the Olympics represent a world at play, the gleeful entrance of 76-year-old torchbearer Sohn Kee Chung at the opening ceremony was a fitting symbol of the vitality, ebullience, and enthusiasm that marked much of the past two weeks. But the Seoul Olympics also struck a grimmer note, one which reverberated throughout these Games, and made the world take notice.
The war on athletic drug-taking got down to serious business with the disqualification of Ben Johnson. One moment, the Canadian sprinter stood on Mount Olympus as an example of tremendous athletic prowesss. In the next, he was stripped of his 100-meter gold medal and flew home in disgrace.
This single development packed much more wallop than the combined positive drug tests of seven less well-known athletes, and was simultaneously viewed as a low and high point of the competition here.
The punishment meted out to Johnson and the embarrasment felt in Canada were counterbalanced by the integrity the swift action of the International Olympic Committee brought to the whole of the Games.
As IOC spokeswoman Michele Verdier put it: ``People said we wouldn't go after the big fish, too. We did.''
While the Johnson case is of indisputable significance, it won't, nor should it, overshadow the incredible job done to stage these Games. When Seoul earned the privilege of throwing this party in 1981, some wondered if the city was developed and orderly enough to do the job.
Even the skeptics, however, were won over. ``I'm happy at how the baby has grown and become a very mature adult,'' said Dr. Andrei Kislov, a Soviet sports official.
On a 0-to-10 scale, these Games deserved a 9.5 in the estimation of Dr. John Lucas, an Olympic historian. Lucas, a professor at Penn State who has attended the last eight summer Games, served on a 12-member international committee retained to evaluate this event.
``On balance, these Olympic Games have been marvelously good in every way that is important - in the Olympic spirit, in the Olympic technology, and in the athletic performance,'' Lucas said. ``These Games have been significantly ahead of all others I have witnessed.''
The spirit of what occurred here was evident in the level of participation (highest ever, with 159 nations and 9,000-plus athletes) and the unflagging efforts by the South Korean people to make this a smooth-running, happy, and safe spectacle.
This was the first Olympics in 12 years not marred by a bloc-level boycott. That made the competition more meaningful than it had been either in Moscow in 1980 or Los Angeles in 1984.
With the exception of those sports where the stay-at-home Cubans may have been a factor, there could be no quibbling over the results. These were the best performances mankind had to offer during the space of 16 days of glorious, early fall weather.
A number of world records and bushels of Olympic records were rewritten, including some by a quartet of American stars - swimmers Matt Biondi and Janet Evans and the 1-2 track and field punch of sprinter Florence Joyner and heptathlete/long jumper Jackie Joyner-Kersee. These sisters-in-law, members of what has been called the First Family of Track, accounted for five gold medals, while Biondi and Evans collected a total of eight.
The US also boasted one of the most inspiring figures of the Games in diver Greg Louganis, who received the US Olympic Committee's Spirit Award.
He ended his career in grand fashion, becoming the first male to win springboard and platform titles in consecutive Olympics, and demonstrating the true heart of a champion. He had to shake off the effects of hitting his head on the board to capture one gold, then nail the most difficult dive in the book on his last turn to beat a 14-year-old Chinese for the platform gold.
If the Olympics were wrapped largely in red, white, and blue, it was only partly because of a US effort that reached typical heights in a few of the 23 medal sports but was overmatched in many others. The Soviets applied the boldest strokes of red, the East Germans the largest swatches of blue.
The USSR, of course, is a vast land with a huge population, so its Olympics-leading 132-medal harvest (55 gold, 31 silver, 46 bronze), was no surprise. East Germany's high-yield sports machine, however, continues to baffle observers, who wonder how a country the size of Virginia and with a population a fraction that of the United States, could wind up with the second-highest totals (37-35-30--102, compared to the US's third-best figures of 36-31-27--94). It's as if there were a Santa's workshop tucked away somewhere in Leipzig or Dresden that turns out world-class rowers, swimmers, throwers, and runners.
Actually, the German Democratic Republic has developed an incredible feeder system that identifies athletic potential early, then spends years developing it.
It isn't just the East Germans, though, who've discredited the notion of strength in numbers. The South Koreans, desperately wanting to show they are a developing athletic as well as economic force, showed here what can happen when emotion and commitment dovetail.
The country easily surpassed its goal of winning six gold medals, securing double that in front of loud, impassioned crowds that were a major intangible asset in every event where South Koreans were entered.
The athletes, some of whom took commando training to increase their mental toughness, came primed for their best efforts and motivated by becoming generously rewarded national heroes for winning gold medals. (A number of other countries also tied cash incentives to medal acquisitions.)
South Korea's effort to become the leading Asian sports power made for emotion-charged moments, such as when the women's handball squad was reduced to uncontrollable tears after winning the gold, the first team title in the country's Olympic history.
If there was a negative side to the pumped-up atmosphere it was the irrational behavior triggered by a controversial boxing decision.
Incensed when the gold was awarded to his foe, a South Korean pugilist staged a sitdown protest in the ring and his coach attacked the referee in the most chaotic scene at these Games.
The local Olympic organizers were embarrassed by this bizarre incident, which became a source of double jeopardy when NBC's extensive coverage of the flap sparked some anti-American feeling.
In the overall scheme of things, however, this was an aberrant sideshow to the goodwill evident in so many areas - especially in the smiling faces of the young Korean spectators, who lent a sense of fun and and innocence to the very colorful and festive Olympic backdrop.
The hosts made a valiant effort to close the East-West language gap, occasionally with amusing results. In the best example, after Kenya's Peter Rono won the 1,500 meters to become one of 11 African runners to capture a medal, he was quoted by Korean officials as saying, ``This is a nightmare - my first Olympics and a gold medal.''
Actually, ``a dream come true'' is certainly what Rono said. His thrilling achievement was only one of many Olympic breakthroughs that marked these Games, and distributed the sense of fulfillment around.
Altogether 52 countries won at least one medal, including Mongolia, Djibouti, Netherland Antilles, and the Virgin Islands.
Swimmer Anthony Nesty of Suriname won his country's first gold medal ever, and three archers from Indonesia picked up a silver in the women's team competition for that nation's first medal of any hue.
Scores of other landmarks were achieved, such as the six golds in six events won by East German swimmer Kristin Otto, the richest haul ever made by a female Olympian.
In the women's sprints, Florence Griffith-Joyner was as speedy as she is glamourous, and set world records in both the semifinals and the final of the 200 meters. She won with such ease, a smile creased her cover-girl face well before the finish. Her victories in the 100 and 200, a feat last achieved by Wilma Rudolph in 1960, along with a gold and a silver in the relays is expected to turned the suddenly famous Flo Jo into Cash Flo.
Another achievement that one suspects will be marketed to the max is Steffi Graf's completion of the first ``golden Slam'' in tennis, victories in all four major Grand Slam tournaments plus the first Olympic title on the line in 64 years.
The financial rewards may not be nearly as great for some other champions, but the satisfaction is no less for weightlifter Naim Suleymanoglu of Turkey, gymnasts Daniela Silivas of Romania and Vladimir Artemov of the Soviet Union, and synchronized swimmer Carolyn Waldo of Canada.
Suleymanoglu, a defector from Bulgaria who wishes to be reunited with his family in his adopted home, blew away the competition to give Turkey its first gold medal since 1968. The ``Pocket Hercules'' shattered the world record in his 132-pound weight class by lifting 342.5 kilograms, 30 more than his nearest rival.
In the closest finish ever in the women's coveted all- around gymnastics competition, Silivas had to settle for silver behind the USSR's Yelena Shushunova in a rather questionably judged finish. She came back to dominate the individual apparatus finals. Meanwhile, Artemov collected four golds to establish himself as the uncontestable best male gymnast.
As for Waldo, she accounted in whole or in part for two of Canada's three gold medals, winning the solo synchronized swimming events and teaming with Michelle Cameron for the duet title. These results, which came near the end of the Games, gave Canadians a means of replacing some of their deep disappointment in Johnson's burst balloon.
Exultation at any Olympics, of course, is matched by abundant heartbreak, too.
Britain's Daley Thompson, who was attempting to become the first three-time gold medalist in the decathlon, must have felt his share of disappointment in finishing fourth. And one of his chief rivals, West Germany's Jurgen Hingsen, was stunned into disbelief when he false-started three times in the opening 100-meter dash, to immediately eliminate himself from contention and waste countless hours of training.
Mary Decker Slaney, who surely would have won a medal in Los Angeles if not for her collision with Zola Budd in the 3,000-meter run, led in both the 1,500 and 3,000 here before falling far off the pace and finishing eighth and 10th respectively at these distances.
The US women's basketball team went home with gold, but the men had their sneakers collectively bronzed by the well-schooled Soviets, who exhibited a convincing degree of mastery in a semifinal win that knocked Uncle Sam out of the finals for the first time. The loss underlined the message that the USSR, and perhaps a few other countries, can compete with American collegians. It bore no resemblance to the only other blemish on the Americans' perfect Olympic record, a one-point loss to the Soviets in a disputed finish to the 1972 gold medal game.
``I told them I didn't want anybody crying, I didn't want anybody acting ashamed,'' said US coach John Thompson, who added facetiously, ``I think they'll [the American public] let us back in the country.''
The Soviet victory is expected to open the doors of the Olympics to National Basketball Association players, the only hoop pros left out of the competition. If that were to occur, such key players of the current team as Danny Manning, who went scoreless against the Soviets, and David Robinson may get another chance to strike Olympic gold.
It won't be at least until 1992 in Barcelona, when the Spanish organizers must already be wondering how to top a $3 billion Olympics that became a national mission for South Koreans. The Koreans went for their own gold medal, and most would say they captured it.