BARCELONA, Spain — Once every four years, they build a Disneyland out of swimming pools and stadiums. They hand out E tickets and give athletes the ride of their lives.
But once every four years the clock also strikes midnight, and they have to close Disneyland. The pools are drained. The stadiums are locked. And the question that no one asks about the Olympics is today the one that all its participants are wondering: Where do we go now?
The answers can be humbling. In the Olympic Village, a group of Bosnians, who had the simple joy these past two weeks of sleeping without the sound of gunfire, prepare to go home. They ask, “Is our airport still standing?” And they are serious.
Meanwhile, a Russian gymnast packs his suitcase and smiles grimly at its weight. Six gold medals are inside. Six? In many countries, he would never have to work again. Instead, Vitaly Scherbo plans to move to Germany or the United States, because back home, in his crumbling nation, he simply cannot cash in.
Not far away, the South African team checks under the beds one last time. For two blessed weeks, they have lived together as brothers and sisters in this Olympic Village apartment, black athletes and white athletes, same showers, same toilets. Now they return to a country where that thought still stirs people to kill.
“You are eligible to run here in the Olympics,” a reporter said to a black South African, “but you are not eligible to vote in your own country. How do you feel about that?”
The black athlete thought for a moment, then said it would be best if he did not answer that question.
Disneyland is closing.
There is a Dr. Seuss book on the best-seller list these days called “Oh, The Places You’ll Go.” The stories of these 1992 Games would fit nicely into two similar works: “Oh, The Places You’ve Been” and “‘Oh, The Places You’ll Go Back To.”
By no means would they all be grim. Shannon Miller came to Barcelona as an
“also-featured” American gymnast, behind the celebrated Kim Zmeskal, yet it is Miller who goes home to parades, a 40-city tour and the talk-show circuit.
Gail Devers came as a little-known sprinter, taking medication for Grave’s disease, an illness that almost caused her to lose her feet. Now she leaves Barcelona with a gold medal and the title “Fastest Woman in the World.” When she lands at a U.S. airport, she’ll see her picture on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Israeli athletes arrived in Barcelona with only one real Olympic memory: the massacre of 11 athletes in the Munich Games of 1972. Tomorrow they go home with something much better: their first Olympic medals. Two of them. In Judo. A man and a woman.
Some go home in shame: The Egyptian soccer team, early losers, was booed by fans and forced to wait in line at the Cairo airport “like regular people” as punishment. A British athlete named Jason Livingston began these Games as his country’s hottest sprinter. He ends them in disgrace, having failed a drug test and not even running.
There are those who performed for one country but go home to another. Swimmer Martin Lopez Zubero, born and raised in Jacksonville, Fla., won a gold medal for Spain, his father’s homeland, and then made his acceptance speech in Spanish, even though his Spanish is not much better than a high school senior’s. Now he returns to Florida, where people may understandably ask, “Whose side are you on?”
Tomorrow means recovery for many Olympians, injured in the line of duty. Dave Johnson will certainly nurse the stress fracture that he says cost him his gold medal in the decathlon. But he’s the picture of health compared with British judo competitor Karen Briggs, who dislocated her shoulder twice during a match and tried to pop it back in and continue. Pop it back in? This is the same woman who, five years ago, broke her leg in three places during a match and tried to straighten it and keep going.
She’s got a right to sing the blues. Homeland and heartbreak
For some Olympians, tomorrow actually means a return to the good life. The Dream Team basketball players finally check out of their measly $900-a-night hotel and get back to their multimillion-dollar homes in the States. Top tennis stars such as Boris Becker, Jim Courier and Steffi Graf get to drop the team bus and doping control of these Olympics and resume the more familiar limousine and personal-hairdresser routine.
And don’t forget the Spanish sailor who happens to be Spain’s future King.
Talk about a secure future.
But for every Carl Lewis, Stefan Edberg or Prince of Spain who did a bit of slumming at these Olympics, there were many more athletes for whom the Games were a pure gust of luxury in an otherwise acrid existence.
A Bosnian weight lifter named Mehmed Skender trained for Barcelona on one meal a day, rice and macaroni, due to the shortage of food in his country. He did not perform well here. But at least he performed. It is a kinder fate than that of his teammate, Vinko Samrlic, a judo specialist. Three weeks before the Opening Ceremonies, Samrlic was killed by sniper fire as he tried to help a wounded man out of the street.
“We cannot let the world forget what is happening to us,” said Mladan Talic, a Bosnian Olympic Committee member. “We are here to show the world that we are still alive.” What a statement. Wasn’t it eight years ago that we were in Sarajevo, raising the Olympic flag for the Winter Games?
Did you notice the woman who won the 1,500 meters race Saturday night? Her name is Hassiba Boulmerka, the daughter of an Algerian truck driver. She is a great talent. And yet every time she runs, Muslim fundamentalists in her country are furious, claiming a woman should not expose her bare legs to strangers. Some preachers have denounced her as “scandalous.”
She returns to Algeria tomorrow, gold medal in hand.
Will it be different? Rewriting history
There was a fascinating scene at the boxing Saturday afternoon. A young Irish welterweight, a Dublin kid with short, red hair, upset his Cuban rival and won his country’s first gold medal of these Games — and first ever in boxing. A mob of Irish fans banged a drum and sang “Ireland! Ireland!”
When the kid heard his name announced as winner, he ran to his corner and leapt into the arms of his coach — a black man from Cuba named Nickolas Hernandez Cruz.
Funny. You don’t look Irish. “These boxers have become my boxers,” said Cruz, a former Cuban athlete who has been hired out by his nation to work with the Irish lads. “I feel very comfortable here. You see how I have learned to speak English.”
Not only that. He spoke with an Irish brogue!
Funny? And yet this is post-Olympic life for many athletes and coaches. Cuba is already the Kelly Girl Services of sports. At these games alone there were Cubans coaching the Venezuelan wrestling team, the Spanish volleyball team, the Mexican track team and the Italian baseball team. Not to mention the boxing teams of China, India, Mexico, Pakistan, Spain, Tanzania, Thailand and Uganda.
Half the money received goes to the coach. The other half goes to Cuba to fund its own sports system. Pretty clever, huh?
And Cuba is not the only one. Many former East German coaches are working in China and having plenty of success, particularly with the swimmers. And how about the biggest medal winners of the Olympics, the Unified Team? Here is one of the finest assemblies of athletes and coaches in history and, as of tomorrow, they are history. Gone. Dust. Never again will they dominate in such a fashion. Back in what used to be the Soviet Union, gymnasiums are dark, lacking heat. Pools are dry. Tracks are empty. When there is little money for food, few worry about sport.
So instead of a hero’s welcome and a parade back in Russia, swimmer Aleksandr Popov, two gold medals, returns to a dormitory in Volograd. He has no phone. He has no car. He is hoping someone out there sees him as valuable and “wants to make a commercial.” The Unified basketball team? Gone. Those iron-hand gymnastics coaches? Looking for work. Going to the highest bidder.
The Olympics are ending. Where do we go now? Some will get rich. Some will need psychiatrists. Some will fall into a funk, wondering why things seem so unexciting. Others will have no time for that, needing to worry, once again, about bullets and bread.
They are a marvelous exercise, these Olympic Games, not only for what they create over 16 days but for what they are able to erase. Unfortunately, no amusement park lasts forever, and the time has come for this one to end. Last call at the Village. Closing time at Disneyland. A return to real life for the winners and the losers, for better or worse.