THE summer Olympics were supposed to be the diversion that would take everybody's mind off the troubles of the "real world." Dazzled by gold medals and the consummate skills of young athletes, who could think - for the moment - of war-ravaged Sarajevo, famine-striken Somalia, or even the presidential campaign?
But everything, as the saying goes, becomes a metaphor. So the US "Dream Team" also came to be dubbed the "Barcelona Bullies" because they buried outclassed opponents. Was this a case of athletic imperialism, critics asked - Americans winning on a basketball court the victories that eluded their economy, for instance, when competing with Japan and Germany?
Even the teenage gymnasts provoked social analysis: Are children who put in eight-hour days in the gym from the age of 6 or 7 being subjected to a form of "child abuse"?
The constant emphasis on steroids reminded Olympic viewers that here was the microcosm of a pervasive "drug culture" crying out to be healed. The name of Magic Johnson could not be mentioned without evoking the global confrontation with AIDS. Much in this privileged arena of sports champions seemed to connect with less privileged lives outside.
Still, it is a good thing the spectacle has not served as a vehicle of "escape." For history stands outside the Olympic village with untidy problems and boundless needs that do not conform to the rules of any game, and history in the summer of '92 cannot be safely ignored.
If the Games have been reminders as well as just games, Olympic-watchers should be heartened to confront actuality again. The final lesson connecting games to life is encouraging: Think of what could be accomplished if we non-athletes applied ourselves to "real world" challenges with half the dedication athletes bring to sports.