The dread Yugo Throat had thousands of visitors in its grip, and the sun shone on Sarajevo for approximately 15 minutes in the 13 days of the XIV Winter Olympics, yet everyone's mood was upbeat. How could this be? Well, for Americans the unprecedented feats of their Alpine ski team—a tour de force that produced a treasure chest of three gold medals and two silvers—made their chests swell and hearts thump, even though as a whole the U.S. team had come up with far fewer medals than expected.
For others, the Sarajevo high was also buoyed by the radiant smiles and tears of joy of the 182 men and women who won medals and by the pride emanating from the elite few—just three of the 1,437 competitors—who won more than one individual gold. Certainly, the inspiriting races of the indomitable Marja-Liisa Hämäläinen of Finland, the first woman ever to earn three individual gold medals in cross-country (and a bronze in the relay), gave the Games a glorious luster. So did the rejoicing of Canada's Gaétan Boucher, who got two golds (and a bronze) in speed skating. And so did the performance of Karin Enke, the East German who took home two golds and two silvers in speed skating.
Finally, there was the infectious enthusiasm of the Yugoslavs for their own athletes. Native sons and daughters turned out in vast, dark-clothed multitudes whenever their compatriots competed. They had great expectations for their 21-year-old ski jumper, Primoz Ulaga, who had won the 70-meter event off Sarajevo's Igman jump in the pre-Olympics last winter, and they watched with open mouths and stopped hearts when he soared in the Games. Alas, Ulaga flew only far enough to finish 57th off the 70-meter hill and 13th off the 90. Bojan Križaj, the premier Yugoslav Alpine racer, fared better—ninth in the giant slalom and seventh in the slalom—but it was Jure Franko, 21, from the village of Nova Gorica in the Julian Alps, who became the hometown hero. He made two stirring runs in the men's giant slalom to finish second to Switzerland's Max Julen. Franko's silver is the first Winter Olympics medal a Yugoslav has ever received, but it won't lead to riches. "I may get some money from the medal, but not big money," said Franko. "I get $50 a month from Elan skis and $50 a month from my ski club. I can live on this money for a long time."
The U.S. supposedly had sent its best team ever, and in a way it was the best ever. True, the Americans won only eight medals, including four golds, but a number of U.S. athletes achieved notable, if non-medal, performances. Jeff Hastings' fourth place in the 90-meter jump was one of those. It was the best U.S. finish in ski jumping since 1924. Unexpected, too, was the American four-man bobsled team's fifth place. Not since 1956, when the U.S. got the bronze, had an American four-man bob come in as high. Speed skater Nick Thometz finished fifth and fourth, respectively, in the 500- and 1,000-meter races, which was much better than he figured to do. And the 15th place attained by the bruised luger, Bonny Warner, was the best ever by a U.S. woman in that sport.
But for Americans who count medals as the only symbol of success, the real splendor of the Sarajevo Games in their last few days lay in the magnificent attainments of three men. First was Bill Johnson, 23, of Van Nuys, Calif. A shockingly cocky newcomer to ski-racing stardom, Johnson swaggered and bragged like a gunslinger before he swept down the Bjelašnica downhill course last Thursday to become the first American to win a gold in that event. Then on Sunday came the double-image oldtimers from White Pass, Wash., Phil Mahre, 26, and his twin, Steve, whom you can now tell apart because Phil wears gold and Steve silver from the slalom race. They, too, had been stunning people all week by saying that they didn't much care about Olympic medals because they had already pretty much made their fortunes. Of course, when it came time to find out whether they really cared, they left no doubt. The Mahres cared a lot—and as a result their already sizable fortunes will swell considerably.
But perhaps not as quickly as that of the fast-talking Johnson, who, when asked what winning the gold medal meant to him, responded, "Millions. We're talking millions." As many journalists noted, Johnson's braggadocio, his delinquent youth, his tendency to be a loner and his open dislike for any semblance of ski-team authority constituted an uncanny replay of both the Robert Redford character and the story line in the 1969 movie Downhill Racer. Johnson thought so, too. No sooner had he finished his first training run than an Austrian TV news team asked him if he was familiar with the film, and he replied, "I've seen it many times, and that's exactly the way it'll happen now. You can start writing your story. This course was designed for me, and everyone else is here to fight for second place."
Such outrageous egoism brought instant comparisons with such braggarts of sport as Namath and Ali. Johnson's victory drew wildly diverse reviews from the hordes of American sportswriters in Sarajevo. Reactions ranged from dour predictions of a bad end for Johnson ("There's a gold medal that's going to end up in a pawn shop") to huge delight in the melodrama of his life ("My God, just think. The kid is damn near sent up the river to the big house, then turns himself around and wins the gold medal. How American can you get?").
Well, it wasn't quite that melodramatic, although Johnson and trouble were close pals in his youth. He was born in Los Angeles and grew up in the Mount Hood region of Oregon. He began skiing at six, and he was a downhiller from the first. "I used to bomb the rope tow when I was seven," he says. "Then, when I got older, I bombed the whole chairlift run. I never bothered to learn how to turn." He apparently never bothered to obey adults, either. Steve Bratt, who's director of skiing at the Mount Hood Meadows slopes and was Johnson's first coach, says, "I had to remove him from the ski team twice for fighting. He was a misfit, but not in a negative sense. He was just extremely independent and an extreme loner. But he was a winner. You always knew that whatever he did, he would be the best in the world. If he chose to be a thief, he'd be the best thief on earth."
Johnson's parents got divorced when he was 16, and though he remains close to both of them, the split troubled him. He frequently skipped school to go skiing, but he did have boosters on the faculty of Sandy Union High in Sandy, Ore. One was Peggy Hart, a social studies teacher and Johnson's counselor when he was a senior. "Personalitywise and behaviorwise, he was a real pain in the neck," she says, "but our relationship was very positive. All of his energies were in skiing. Still, he graduated with a B-minus average, in the top third of the class, and he was outstanding in subjects he liked, such as geometry and physics. He was a very bright young man."
He still is. Johnson is a tournament-class bridge player and a crossword-puzzle addict. Moreover, says his father, Wally, a computer analyst in Cerrito, Calif., "Don't ever get in a chess match or a gin rummy game with him."