BARCELONA, Spain — Hours before the Opening Ceremonies, a warm breeze blew across the beach, and a group of Malaysian athletes gazed at a German track star in a bikini. She smiled. They blushed.

On the promenade, a Korean folk group was singing, and the Chinese gymnastics team stopped to listen. One of them began to dance. “AHOOO!” he yelled, his arms waving.

This was the Olympic athletes’ village, the last and best reason I can think of to hold onto these Games. In the noisy cafeteria, a Nigerian distance runner ran into an old competitor from Oman.

“Hey, mon, look at you!” he yelled.

The athlete from Oman, his English weak, smiled with gapped-teeth and gave the Nigerian a silent hug.

Like most kids, when I dreamt of the Olympics, I dreamt of winning. Now, in some ways, I think losing might be better. Not that you shouldn’t try your best. But what about fun and camaraderie? Success in sports today comes with a heavy price — and it can definitely ruin the Olympic experience.

Take a look at some “winners.” How about Carl Lewis? The man with a bag of gold medals already is disliked for his arrogance. So what does he do? He again refuses to stay in the athletes’ village. Then he calls a press conference — not in an Olympic site, but a place where the shoe company that pays him millions, Mizuno, can hang a banner behind him, to be seen in every photo and TV clip.

It begins with a Mizuno guy boasting about the shoes Lewis will wear.

“SHUT UP!” reporters yell.

Lewis is off to another swell start. Team’s spirit isn’t a dream

How about the surest “winners” of these Games, the Dream Team, aka the NBA’s International Marketing Department? A lock to win the gold, these guys
— Magic, Michael, Charles, et al — marched in the ceremonies, but that’s about it. They, too, will pass on the Olympic village, where the warm breeze blows and athletes play pinball together.

Instead, these millionaires will hole up in their $900-per- night hotel, with their TV sets tuned to CNN Sports, and rarely go out. Wait. Check that. Michael Jordan did go somewhere. He went to a special Nike press conference — if you can call it that — in which the shoe company that pays him millions of dollars trotted him out in a darkened auditorium with Nike music blasting, Nike videos playing and that deep- digging journalist, Ahmad “Nike” Rashad, being paid to serve as moderator.

Lots of Olympic spirit there, huh?

The Opening Ceremonies were beautiful, but swimmer Janet Evans, a medal favorite, said she had “no desire to march in them,” and chose to rest for her race on Tuesday. German tennis stars Steffi Graf and Boris Becker, also medal favorites, skipped the ceremonies and the village; to them, the Olympics are just another stop on the tour. Martin Zubero, a medal favorite who will swim for Spain, is surrounded by bodyguards wherever he goes, partly because the king of Spain wants a medal very badly. What a fun way to spend a week.

Remember Canada’s Ben Johnson, who won the 100 meter gold before failing his steroid test? He is hiding in Barcelona until his race. No one knows where. Even swimmer Anthony Nesty from Suriname, who won his country’s first Olympic medal in 1988, says the pressure to repeat has made going home almost impossible.

The “winners.” Things more valuable than gold

Now store those images, and walk through the athletes’ village with all its also-rans, the yachtsmen, the archers, the wrestlers, the gymnasts that don’t stand a chance, the marathon runners who will barely break three hours. You read their uniforms, Egypt, Nepal, New Zealand, the Cook Islands, you see them wide-eyed, checking out the flags, shaking hands with everyone. You watch them loading their plates in the cafeteria, some of them amazed so much food can be so . . . free.

They will take home no medals. But they will leave with something just as valuable.

When the Olympic forefathers limited the Games to amateurs, they were blatantly trying to keep them in the hands of the rich. But they were also trying to follow a principle: that athletics be gentlemanly, that sports and training never reach out-of-proportion levels. That money not cost athletes their sense of Olympic brotherhood by turning them into billboards. That, too, was amateurism.

Those ideas are gone now. Instead, we have NBA star John Stockton, who answered the question of why the Dream Team wasn’t staying in the Olympic village:

“To me the Olympic spirit is to go out and beat the other teams, not to live with them. . . . the Indians didn’t dine with Custer.”

That’s our “winner” talking.

Really chokes you up, huh?

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