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Money fuels great American medal machine at Barcelona Games


BARCELONA, Spain -- The newest Olympic athletic machine is red, white and blue and fueled by green.

The United States, the richest and largest visiting delegation at the 1992 Summer Olympics, might also produce the most medals.

The count, of course, is unofficial. The Olympics, after all, are for individuals, not countries.

But after years of watching most of the medals and the glory go to athletes from the former Soviet Union and East Germany, the Americans are now moving center stage in Barcelona.

"We have become the Russian machine," said U.S. freestyle wrestler Kendall Cross.

Nine days through the Games, the Unified Team composed of the 12 former Soviet republics leads with 32 gold, 23 silver and 19 bronze. But the Americans, with a second-week schedule tailored to their strengths, are in second with 19 gold, 19 silver and 18 bronze.

Not since Lyndon B. Johnson was a lame-duck president has the United States led the way at a non-boycotted Olympics.

At the 1968 Olympics, the Americans topped the medal standings. The United States won more medals than any other country at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, but nearly one-quarter of the sporting world was missing, following the lead of a Soviet boycott.

This time, the world -- 172 countries -- has come to Barcelona.

And the Americans are hauling away medals as if they were quarters tumbling from slot machines.

The reasons:

Political backdrop

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism have changed the Olympic terrain. Countries that once poured money and manpower into athletic programs for the glory of the state are now teetering on the verge of economic ruin. And the East German machine, with all its athletic successes and pharmacological abuses, has been torn apart.

"I've talked to some of the athletes from other countries and they say they haven't received their training checks from their federations in months," said U.S. fencer Nick Bravin. "We're only just beginning to see the fallout of the problems the Eastern bloc countries are having. By 1996, those machines may have completely folded."

The melding of two German systems once divided by a wall has not been smooth. There have been squabbles over coaches, tactics and past indiscretions. Even German swimmers from the East call German swimmers from the West "arrogant."

"When East and West Germany merged, a lot of money was taken away from the East German machine," said U.S. hurdler Lynda Tolbert. "Without money, what can you do?"

Competing one last time as the Unified Team, the athletes from the 12 Soviet republics are still winning medals and may yet emerge as the overall leader after getting a boost with seven medals last night in men's gymnastics. But their veneer of dominance has been shattered.

"They're having trouble getting food in Russia," said U.S. men's gymnastics coach Francis Allen. "These athletes are going to go home and they don't know if their gyms will even be open. It's tough for them."


Gone forever is the age of amateurism. And the U.S. Olympic Committee, once slow to respond to the new reality, is pouring money directly to athletes. Spurred by the George Steinbrenner commission, established in the wake of a horrid performance at the 1988 Winter Games of Calgary, Alberta, the USOC increased its budget of direct cash payments from $2.3 million in 1988 to $26 million in 1992.

USOC grants to the national governing bodies that oversee Olympic sports in the United States also nearly doubled, from $38 million to $75 million.

The Olympic Job Opportunities program also enabled 450 athletes to earn a full-time living by working part time. More than 900 Olympic-caliber athletes are also getting tuition assistance to attend college.

"My credit cards used to all be backed up," freestyle wrestler Chris Campbell said. "But not anymore."

But Olympic athletes aren't growing rich; they're just getting by.

"I wouldn't have made it without the faith in the Lord and support from my parents," said Tolbert, the U.S. hurdler. "I'm still struggling now, even with the help from the USOC. But I'm not in the poorhouse."

The success created by money can't be measured in medals. Instead, look at age. With so much assistance available, Olympic athletes can prolong their careers. This year's U.S. team is 2 years older per competitor than the 1984 Los Angeles team, and 8 months older per competitor than the 1988 Seoul team.

"We've always had the athletes, but they left their sports early because they couldn't afford to hang on," said Cross, who begins wrestling tomorrow. "Now, we can hang on, because of the money. An athlete usually doesn't reach his peak until his late 20s. Now, our athletes are at their peaks. The movement is just starting in the U.S. By 1996, our machine will be completely in place."


Wherever you look, you see some of the best U.S. teams ever. American swimmers won 27 medals, including 11 golds, up from 18 overall medals earned in Seoul.

"We were all determined to bring USA swimming back to the status it used to have when Americans were contending for a medal in every race," said Jenny Thompson, winner of three medals -- two gold and one silver. "But I think the medal count is definitely overrated in the Olympic Games. It reminds me too much of a war where each side is trying to get more ammunition than its opponent. I guess it is just a superficial and easy way of determining a country's success."

USOC Executive Director Harvey Schiller said: "Plus or minus, good or bad, everyone pays attention. There are certainly better VTC indicators and lots of ways to look at performance. But medal count seems to be a focus on the part of a lot of people."

Gymnast Shannon Miller tied Mary Lou Retton's American record of five Olympic medals, and the U.S. women also won a team bronze.

"We're closing the gap with the rest of the world," said Miller's coach, Steve Nunno. "You'll really see us cook in four years. We've got a number of talented kids in the pipeline right now. And there is no telling what impact Shannon's medals will have on those kids who were watching on TV. Now, they'll want to grow up to become the next Shannon Miller."

Still to come are appearances by a U.S. freestyle wrestling team with six world champions, finals in yachting, where the United States could add another half-dozen medals, and medal-round games in men's and women's basketball and volleyball and men's water polo and baseball -- all strong events for the United States.

And, of course, there is track and field. The Americans already have three gold, one silver and two bronze medals, and they are expected to dominate the sprints and relays that are still to come.

The future

The Summer Games are coming to Atlanta in 1996, and although

USOC officials will not comment publicly, the quest for golds and global athletic supremacy will be part of the American Olympic agenda.

But these same officials blanch when asked whether the United States is creating an Olympic machine. They point to the diversity of America, and the fact that Olympic athletes are nurtured not at athletic factories, but in a variety of places.

"We have a very complex system," Schiller said. "We don't have anything that is directed. Our system depends on the schools and colleges, community-based organizations and private clubs.

"When you talk about a machine, you tend to focus on individuals and individual events, without sport for all," Schiller said. "Those countries only have limited resources. When you think about archery to yachting, you didn't see those countries ,, participate in every sport. But we do."

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