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So while the Olympics were cast as this huge civic trial—the whole world is watching—they also were, practically speaking, no more than a block party. So vast is this summer camp of a city that you could drive for minutes, even an hour or more, and never have the slightest awareness that the Games existed. And then blending into the L.A. scene was all the more facilitated by the efficiency with which they were run. Why, if Peter V. Ueberroth is really this capable, go out and buy the first baseball franchise you can. And the volunteers: They were as unfailingly helpful as they were well scrubbed. The glorious colors—the banners, the kiosks and booths, even the trash cans and hot-dog napkins—were happily original, all Toyland confetti, in light and airy shades all their own. We get enough of red-white-and-blue everywhere else, don't we? Gridlock? Not even a "moderate but moving." The weather was magnificent, the smog a friendly tourist attraction that knew its place. The cops rounded up something like 1,000 hookers. Why, there wasn't even much honest commerce. The business at hotels, rent-a-car counters and taxi stands was variously estimated to be off by 20% to 40%. The tourists stayed Back-east, and the locals were glued to Channel 7. "I hear business is off a little," a man said to Mickey Mouse at Disneyland. "Off!?!" the distressed rodent rasped in a gruff voice. "Hey, we've got to be down 50 percent." Even salons on Rodeo Drive shuttered early. But then these are the same people who pick up in the seventh inning of a tight Dodger game to beat the traffic.
Southern Californians are really more like an ethnic group. But our Southern California-Americans are different from other countries' ethnics because they weren't necessarily born Southern Californian, the way Armenians are born Armenian and Croats are born Croats. And that, as a class, makes them awfully proud and insufferably smug. Here's a place that even trumped God; it transformed a desert with pipes and the climate with exhaust. It has become the genuine mano a mano rival of New York—and, despite its Olympic xenophobia, wonderfully international—but it remains embarrassingly parochial in so many respects. The difference is this: New York is a wise guy that won't suffer fools; Los Angeles is a spoiled kid that won't tolerate weaklings.
Of course, there's nothing wrong about cheering for the home team. Why, in '80 the Russians sometimes were downright cruel, hooting at a Polish pole vaulter as he sought to concentrate. But the Olympics aren't the Lakers vs. the Nuggets or USC vs. Oregon State. The deck is stacked here. The U.S. has more money and more facilities and more coaches and more healthy kids. Plus, its chief opposition stayed away.
The athletic resources of this rich land are so deep that, in effect, ABC itself has won a score of medals for us. Events like gymnastics, cycling, volleyball and water polo were "foreign sports" until ABC started hyping them. Now, just like that, we all but rule them—and usually with Southern California kids. Peter Buehning is a doctor from New Jersey and president of the U.S. Team Handball Federation. As Sweden was beating the U.S., Buehning exulted that ABC had at last given his sport a few precious minutes of exposure. " ABC can change this game in America," he said, and do you doubt him? If we really wanted to go after a team handball medal in '88 at Seoul, we could win one. We'd hire a foreign coach, stock a team with natural athletes from Encino and El Segundo, and then overpower the smaller nations where team handball may have been a way of life for generations. O.K. But then don't turn around and cheer for our success at the expense of these good losers.
On Wednesday, the American women's volleyball team had dropped the first two games to Brazil, and a defeat in one more game would almost certainly mean that the years much of the team had spent together, through the 1980 boycott, would be wasted. The fans, as usual, were chanting U!S!A!, U!S!A!, a spiteful catechism that, if you heard Communists reciting the same sort of thing on May Day, you'd hoot at as the mindless mouthings of totalitarian sheep. It was so grating that a handful of foreigners present began to chant B!R!A!, B!R!A! (for Brazil) in retaliation.
But then, in the third game, Paula Weishoff, from up the freeway in Torrance, 6'1", willowy and animated and cute—you can be 6'1" and cute—her little ponytail flying, her mouth agape with joy, began to take command. She's only 22, the youngest regular on the squad; she never experienced the pain of missing '80. But she was the one who carried her older teammates along. They won the next two games and led in the finale, and now the crowd was beside itself as the gallant Brazilians regrouped and went up 12-9. They held the serve, three points from victory. The spectators screamed, imploring the Americans—and yet it was spontaneous, genuine in a way that the Brazilians said afterward offended them not at all. Because now the fans were cheering for a home team instead of the home country, and that's allowed under any athletic charter, even the sanctimonious Olympic one.
And the U.S. stirred again and began to roll, and by the time Weishoff spiked its sixth straight point for 15-12, game and match, there was bedlam. Weishoff was dashing all around, hugging and kissing, and it was some time before the coach, Arie Selinger, could pull her aside and say simply, "You won it." She is from Southern California, a second-generation TV Olympian; he was in a concentration camp as a child. He has been an American for only five years. In other words, Selinger was once a foreigner. "The Brazilians were wonderful," he made a point of saying after the match. But by then the crowd in Long Beach had itself lustily cheered the losers, the non-Americans.
Those fans perhaps understood then that we Americans aren't necessarily better, only that we possess more resources, more opportunity. And when we do win, it's for all of us—competitors, fans, newsmen—all Americans—to have the sense and grace to say: We haven't beaten you in the Olympics; we've merely shown you what is possible when anyone is as big and as blessed as we are.