TWENTY years ago it took Valery Borzov just over 10 seconds to earn the title of "the world's fastest man" at the Olympic Games in Munich. He was an instant hero to millions in the Soviet Union.
Back then the Olympics was another arena for the cold war, and Americans dominated short-distance track events. Then came Mr. Borzov, a cool-headed young sprinter from Kiev, Ukraine, who won gold medals in both the 100- and 200-meter races.
The Soviet Union has since splintered into 15 independent states, and this year's summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, will see the last of a powerful Unified Team. As of 1993, each of the newly independent republics may send a separate team to the Olympic Games.
As Ukraine's sports minister and president of its National Olympic Committee, Borzov faces a far more complex challenge than his 10-second sprint to Olympic glory.
He is responsible for creating a national sports policy for this cash-strapped, fledgling country, which has contributed a quarter of all Soviet Olympic champions.
"I was well-known for my composure, my coolness - that was my image as an athlete and competitor," he said in a recent interview in his Kiev office overlooking the city's Republican Stadium. "It was how I reacted to enormous pressure. This is my nature and this is how I approach the task I now face.
"We've really undergone an evolution in thinking over the last 20 years," he says, reflecting on his Munich experience. "I've gone from being a person living in the Soviet Union, representing its interests in the Olympics under its flag and anthem, to one living in a free Ukraine and defending its interests, its flag, and anthem with the International Olympic Committee [IOC].
"Some people were upset that Ukraine wasn't allowed to have separate teams in Albertville and Barcelona," Borzov says. "While the Olympics should stand above politics and countries, one cannot say political events don't affect the Olympics. Our political situation was unclear until last December," when the Soviet Union formally fell apart, and the republics won international diplomatic recognition as independent states.
"Only then, several months before the Games, could we launch a full-scale effort for full IOC membership," Borzov says. "The IOC decided on a temporary Unified Team, arguing that Olympic competition over the last 30 years was based on rivalries among the US, the USSR, and the two Germanies, and that they feared a loss of interest among spectators."
The IOC also told sports officials from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) that they were bound by contracts with sponsors of a Unified Team, he says. Ukraine became a full member of the IOC in March.
Many athletes from the former republics who competed on the Unified Team during the Winter Olympics in Albertville, France, complained about the use of the Olympic flag and anthem in place of the old Soviet symbols.
"I cannot say the athletes felt comfortable," says Borzov, speaking in Ukrainian. "All ideology aside, these were symbols many of the athletes were used to."
Things will be different in Barcelona: Each team will march behind its own national flag in the opening and closing ceremonies. Its own flag and anthem will be played in medal ceremonies for individual events.
Ukraine will send 81 athletes out of a CIS total of nearly 500 headed to Spain. Among the medal hopefuls is superstar pole vaulter and 1988 Olympic gold medalist Sergei Bubka, who has broken the world record 30 times since he began his jumping career eight years ago.