Only the athletes save the Olympic Games. Each Olympiad, winter and summer, the months before the competition are rancid with boycott, eligibility sqabbles, drug accusations and plain, adrenaline-fired suspicion. Then suddenly the flame is kindled, and it becomes the athletes' obligation to somehow redeem the whole Olympic movement by virtue of their performances, to leave flawed Games shining in memory because they produced a Shorter or Spitz, a Korbut or Comaneci.
In Los Angeles, in these XXIII Summer Games, the athletes didn't even wait for the competition to start. They took a gorgeously produced opening ceremony at the Coliseum last Saturday and turned it into a powerful display of the binding emotions of international sport. They were so hungry to demonstrate the substance of LAOOC president Peter Ueberroth's words—"the finest group of young men and women ever assembled in the history of sport...the best hope for the future of mankind"—that they broke ranks, embraced and lifted the formality of the ceremony into something containing elements of both pagan rite and sacred affirmation.
"It felt," said Canadian basketball player Bev Smith, walking, stunned, from the Coliseum, "like it was supposed to feel."
And in the process, it made millions know that the Soviets had been wrong to boycott and to pressure their satellites to stay away. Wrong simply because they missed a great time. "If they had been here, it would have been perfect," said Robert Pariente of L'Equipe, the French sports newspaper. "It was the best opening I have ever seen."
Of course, it didn't start out that way, but with the usual snarl of pre-Olympic haggling. Libya's six-member team withdrew on July 27 after three journalists from that country were denied visas by the State Department for security reasons. The Soviet bloc boycott and the possibility of another no-show in four years in Seoul, South Korea (whose government the Soviet Union doesn't recognize) caused 1964 swimming multi-gold-medalist Don Schollander to say, "It will be 20 years between Olympics that have everybody, from 1972 to 1992."
Security was tight. In Moscow, the Soviets were citing the July 18 killing of 21 people in a McDonald's restaurant in San Ysidro, near San Diego, to support their assertions that life in Southern California is dangerously violent. They could take further ammunition from a second tragedy in Westwood, in which one pedestrian was killed and 57 were injured when a car driven by a 21-year-old man who spoke vaguely of a grudge against the police plowed into a crowd at 35 mph the night before the Games began.
But no athletes were endangered. Indeed, two of the three Olympic villages, those at USC and UCLA, were so calm as to be described by the athletes as sanctuaries. The first security call at the Santa Barbara village was a fire alarm—tripped by a group of South Koreans cooking snake on a hibachi.
And even the opening ceremony, planned by Hollywood producer David L. Wolper, seemed at first to prove only that when you live by the symbol, you risk dying by the symbol. The one that expired in rehearsal was a 22-year-old bald eagle, portentously named Bomber, who had been yanked out of the Patuxent (Md.) Wildlife Research Center to fly from a perch over a section of spectators in the Coliseum and land on a set of Olympic rings on the field. Overweight when he arrived, he was trained too hard and abruptly died of vascular collapse and an acute bacterial infection. "Smog," said cynics. "Stress," said the vet.
For a while Wolper spoke of using a back-up golden eagle named Fluff. Ueberroth, apparently seeing no need to remind the Olympic audience that the LAOOC had killed the national bird, declared there would be none at all.
"I thought this whole thing was going to be a chaotic mess," said U.S. shot-putter Augie Wolf. Others, marshaling for the lengthy ceremony, were hardly reverent. "The guy in the K mart told me this was the only suit like it in the world," said U.S. 5,000-meter runner Steve Lacy, strutting in his red, white and blue Levi Strauss parade uniform. "But now look. Everybody has one."