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16 days of triumph, unity come to end in Barcelona


BARCELONA, Spain -- They began when an archer ignited a caldron with a flaming arrow, and they ended last night with closing ceremonies that included fire-breathing dragons, giant illuminated beach balls, dancing horses and fireworks that were so loud that a stadium atop a hill shook.

The 1992 Summer Olympics were history's biggest. Games of transition, they were labeled, with 12 republics of the former Soviet Union competing for the last time as one Unified Team, with South Africa returning after 32 years of exile, with Germany united, with China ascendant, with the United States once again powerful.

But to understand why these were the best Games of a generation, you had to feel the heat of a city in August and watch athletes in defeat and triumph.

Carl Lewis, after all these years and all these golds, finally finding a sense of joy on the track, hurling a relay stick into the stands and shrieking, "Yes, Yes," after a world-record run.

Lithuanian basketball players dressed in warm-ups supplied by a rock group called Grateful Dead, beating the Unified Team, then weeping after the enormity of a triumph for their country, newly free after 51 years under Soviet domination.

"We are a nation that was suffering and we survived," coach Vladas Garastas said. "Three million people, nearly the whole population of Lithuania, was watching us."

The world watched the rise of China. Eight years after joining the Olympics, China came away with 54 medals and a new national heroine, 13-year-old diver Fu Minxia, who flies through the air like a dart and relaxes by listening to Madonna.

These were the Games of Vitaly Scherbo, a gymnast from Minsk, Belarus, who covets fast cars and loves loud music and came away with six medals, all gold. But in a country where the economy is collapsing, the golds are merely tickets out to a professional career in Europe.

Russian swimmer Aleksandr Popov talked of cashing in his medals for western endorsements after beating Matt Biondi in the 50 and 100 meters. Asked how he could succeed with political changes buffeting his training, he said, "Ah, there is no time to have a history lesson. To explain, I would have to start back in 1917."

Remember Israel's Yael Arad, a 25-year-old judoist who won a silver and dedicated the country's first Olympic medal to the 11 athletes slain at the Munich Games in 1972.

From Algeria came Hassiba Boulmerka, a tiny runner with the strength to endure taunts from Muslim fundamentalists for her nakedlegs and shoulders and the power to win the 1,500 meters. As she received her gold, she wept uncontrollably on the medal stand and declared: "A courageous Algeria is what I want. The most important thing is for my Algerian brothers to understand my message."

South Africa's Elana Meyer and Ethiopia's Derartu Tulu delivered a different message. Moments after their duel in the women's 10,000, Meyer, the white silver medalist from a country striving to break the shackles of apartheid locked arms and flags with Tulu, the black gold medalist.

"We did it for Africa," Meyer said, "and African women."

Fermin Cacho won for his king and his country, breaking free in the men's 1,500, crossing the finish line first, and then being whisked to the royal box, where he shook hands with Spain's King Juan Carlos, and kissed the cheek of Queen Sofia. For Spain, it was a final moment of triumph. A country that entered these Games with four golds left with 13.

There were bittersweet moments, too. For American swimmer Ron Karnaugh, the Olympics became a nightmare when his father died during the opening ceremonies. But Karnaugh came back to race. He didn't win a medal, but he touched hearts and held close a straw hat, the one that belonged to his father.

Great Britain's Derek Redmond needed the help of his father to )) finish his longest race, after popping a hamstring muscle. The Redmonds, father and son, did not win, but they crossed a line together, and a crowd stood and cheered.

Despite war, 10 athletes from Bosnia-Herzegovina made their way to Barcelona. Their triumph was in reaching the starting line. But ultimate victory, peace, remained elusive.

As the Games ended last night, Barcelona Mayor Pasqual Maragall, declared: "War has ignored the Olympic truce."

There was plenty of love and joy in this city by the Mediterranean. But it took a professional basketball player who is infected with the human immunodeficiency virus to remind the world of the sheer pleasure of performing.

You want the star of Barcelona?

His name is Magic Johnson. Athletes from around the world climbed barricades and stopped a parade just to meet him. And when America's Dreamers, the greatest basketball team ever assembled, easily won its gold medal, the crowd yelled for Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin, but they screamed and chanted for Johnson.

That's the way to remember Barcelona. For 16 days, there was magic.

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