A unique Games

Barcelona Olympics can be described as unique. After many, many summers we had a boycott-free Games, conforming to the ideals of the Olympic Movement.

Sergei Bubka looks dejected after a disastrous show in Barcelona. Bubka’s failure was a big disappointment for the Unified Team, which topped the medals tally in the Olympics.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

Every Olympiad leaves a treasure trove of memories. Barcelona is no exception. The 25th Olympiad saw a magnificent procession of events for 16 days, each historic and eventful, underlining the essence of human existence, endeavour and excellence.

Barcelona Olympics can be described as unique. After many, many summers we had a boycott-free Games, conforming to the ideals of the Olympic Movement.

“It has all been sensational. These are going to be difficult Games to equal. It is a celebration that Barcelona, Catalonia, and Spain are going to remember for a lifetime. Everything has been well thought out. Without any doubt, these have been the best Games in history and I am not the only one who thinks so — everyone does,” proclaimed Marquis Juan Antonio Samaranch, President, International Olympic Committee, obviously elated over the manner in which the 25th Olympiad passed into history.

 

True, the jubilation of the IOC chief is shared by many, because there were genuine apprehensions whether everything would go on smoothly, especially in the area of security.

But the question that popped up now and then was in relation to protecting the sanctity of the Olympic Movement. If the factors that prompted this poser conveyed certain contours of negativism, it was clear to many that the concept of Olympism was in a state of metamorphosis. It was inevitable that the philosophy behind the Olympic Movement has to be re-oriented towards commercialism and professionalism. No less a person than the IOC President defended this drift, which was inevitable. The thinking is to save the Olympic Games as well as to spare the commoner from being squeezed to bear the burden of tax, for staging the mega event.

The 16-day festival of youth passed off without a hitch, especially at a time when life and society were passing through a difficult phase all over the globe. This is something to be rejoiced. This certainly underscored the resilience, if not the vibrancy, of the Olympic Movement. The decision of the IOC to charter an aircraft to bring athletes from the war-torn Yugoslavia and the recognition accorded to Bosnia confirmed the belief of sport being the only instrument for peace.

Before the Games, the United States was expected take the lion’s share in all major disciplines, especially in the face of the fragmentation of the Soviet Union and the snowballing problems in Europe, notably after the unification of Germany. But once the Games began to unfold, the events showed how wrong was such an assumption. The 12 Soviet States, participating as the Unified Team, without an anthem or a flag (they competed under the Olympic flag), showed that the efficacy of their sporting programme continues to rule, whatever be the political compulsions that separated them.

It is a tribute to the efficiency and effectiveness of the sports policies of the erstwhile Soviet Union, that the Unified Team topped the medals tally, garnering 112 against the 108 by the United States. The Unified Team’s dominance came in gymnastics, as expected. The marvellous Vitaly Scherbo carved a niche for himself. Creditable was the Unified Team’s show in athletics with a total of 21 medals, next only to the United States. But what really gave the Unified Team an image was the success in swimming, an area where many believed it would be difficult to beat the Americans. But the two stalwarts, Sadovyi and Popov, showed the stuff they are made of. They outclassed the famous Americans, Matt Biondi and Tom Jager. Many analysts believed that the quest for glory by the former Soviets was not because of any sense of nationalism but with an eye on lucrative contracts and endorsements.

Probably, the Ukranian Sergei Bubka, who would like to forget the Barcelona Olympics has shown them the way. Said to be making $30,000 for every centimetre of record he sets in pole vault, Bubka has effectively merchandised his skill for money. Whatever be the motivating factor, the performances of the Unified team were outstanding.

“If U.S. has restored itself, one way or the other, as the dominant power in track and field, then the geographical dispersal of the gold medals, from China to Kenya, Canada to Lithuania, reminded us that these were the first complete Olympics,” wrote Cliff Temple in the Sunday Times. This assessment cannot be faulted one bit, although it may be pointed out that success for Kenya, or for that matter, Africa, had not come in the expected measure.

A scene from the Opening Ceremony. The show, overall, was simply breathtaking.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

 

A Kenyan journalist viewed the mediocre show of his country due to the result of many compromises made after the strict conduct of the selection trials, where many of the famous names were left out. The demonstration of proficiency of the combined German team was exemplary. Outstanding in this were the canoeists who had cornered as many as seven gold medals, followed by their oarsmen, cyclists and athletes, with four gold medals in each discipline, to help Germany to the third spot with a tally of 82. Equally exemplary was the show by the Chinese, whose re-entry into the Olympics in 1984 in Los Angeles opened a new vista for sports in Asia.

In Barcelona, the Chinese swimmers, more specifically the women divers, caught the fancy of one and all. The degree of proficiency exhibited by the cute Fu Mingxia and Gao Min, who monopolised the diving events, was breath-taking. Superb is the epithet for the Cubans, back in the Games after a gap of 12 years. Their boxers amazed everyone. The 22 medals for the Spaniards were a bonanza. For a country which had won only four gold medals in the last edition in Seoul, the tally of 13 this time is certainly something remarkable. “We wanted to give to the world an image of Spain, dynamic and modern, and not merely folklore,” explained Javier Navarro, the Minister for Sports. It is estimated that Spain had pumped in no fewer than US $120 millions to tone up its programme. Coaches who were recruited from Cuba chalked out schemes in volleyball, archery, water polo, cycling and yachting.

While expressing his appreciation to the Organising Committee for conducting the 25th Olympiad in an exemplary manner, Mr. Juan Antonio Samaranch pointed out the fact that 64 countries had come within the medal bracket as against the 52 in the last Olympiad in Seoul. This indicates the proliferation of sport under the guidance and patronage of the Olympic programme. Another factor that gratified the IOC boss was the pronounced decline in the number of doping cases in Barcelona. Out of the 1800 samples only five tested positive. But Mr. Samaranch emphasised that there should be no let-up in this area and he indicated that the Medical Commission would resort to blood testing in the next Winter Olympics in Lillehammer.

No Olympics is complete without some unsavoury incidents and Barcelona too had its quota. An appalling act with clear political overtones was that of Ibrahim Samdov, weightlifter of the Unified team, who snatched the medal from the presenter and threw it away. The International Wrestling Federation promptly suspended the competitor and the IOC lost no time in endorsing the verdict. Equally despicable was the assault on a volunteer by the famous (or infamous?) Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson. The athlete was ordered to leave the Olympic Village and his accreditation was suspended immediately.

Well, the Olympics proved once again as the theatre of the good, the bad and the ugly. Barcelona, which for a long time conjured up visions only of bull-fighting, bolero, flamenco dancers, and the irresistible cha-cha-cha, was the centrestage, earning an identity for itself as an Olympic city.

Long after the Flame was extinguished at the opulently carved Estadi Olympic on the Montjuic hill, after all the festivities on that starless night of August 9, one is happy to say, “Adios, Barcelona, well done.”

This article was published in The Sportstar of August 29, 1992.