The greatest conquest begins to wither the moment it is achieved. So as a quiet reminder, Olympic medalists are presented with something green and freshly cut. The significance of the moment may last, but its steaming paella of sensations—its juice and hoarse joy—will cool and fade.
Yet notice: Barcelona Olympians tickled and batted each other not with delicate rosebuds but with bunches of tough Mediterranean herbs, which can flavor a stew long into winter. So in this season of reminiscence, if we grind a sprig of Barcelona's laurels in the palm, we find the sharp aromas of bay leaf and sage suddenly evoking the heal and vapors of Olympic Stadium atop Montjuïc. And memory being so hopelessly bound up with emotion, the flooding images resolve into those of a single day, the most compelling day of the Summer Olympics—and of the year. Indeed, to have witnessed the track and field events contested on Aug. 8, 1992, was surely to have partaken of one of the most memorable experiences in sporting history.
That evening's four relays, three individual races and two field events combined to drive the emotions of the crowd of 65,000 in ways so connected and operatic that the events seemed not randomly scheduled but willed. Each worked out its own matters of redemption and justice and human limits and then took its place in a larger narrative, race by race, meaning by meaning. Victors struck ecstatic blows for wonderful causes. A nation and a king poured down their passion upon a native son as he seized the moment of his life. A great champion screamed in agreement with his own world-record resurrection.
And then this day topped even that, in a way that left the throng dumbstruck and blinking. Many who were there just sat and trembled and refused to leave. Who was eager to trudge back down the mountain to life as it would now be, forever flat? And who among us, inhaling the scent of faded laurels, can resist one more look back?
Each modern Olympic track crowd has had its own character. Munich's was rather self-satisfied. Moscow's was boorish, and Los Angeles's so unschooled in the sport that it booed Carl Lewis for passing up his last four long jumps after he had the event won, had no chance for a record and was saving himself for the 200. Seoul's throng was made melodic by the inclusion of thousands of schoolchildren, but it watched as if it were at an unfamiliar ballet, delighted by the swirl of trained motion yet untouched on deeper levels.
It took Barcelona to fill an Olympic stadium with a crowd prepared to grasp what it was seeing and give it full, appropriate voice. The crowd was composed largely of working-class Catalans, emotive and still politically supersensitive after waiting out four decades of Francoist oppression. Marching up Montjuïc, many of the spectators reached to touch an inscription on a bronze statue of an athlete holding up a torch. It read, in part, "...que va morir per defensar la justica social, la fraternitat i la tolerancia."
Once inside, the gathering found that the steep-sided Olympic Stadium created an echo chamber that generated great volume but stirred sounds together. Few could make out what the announcers were saying. The crowd was thrown back on its own knowledge of the athletes, which was considerable.
Therefore the throng came alert when Gwen Torrence went out to run anchor for the U.S. 4 X 100-meter relay team. Two days before, she had won the 200-meter dash. "Now I just had two goals," she would say later. "I wanted to get something for Evelyn Ash-ford, who was leading off, who's 35 and whom I've always respected more than I could ever tell her, because we were competitors. And I was determined to walk that Privalova woman down."
It's a fine, fierce sprinter's expression, walking down. It makes a few seconds' overtaking seem the cruel work of hours. Torrence felt that Irina Privalova, the Unified Team's anchor, deserved it. Torrence suspected that Privalova had used performance-enhancing drugs, and she had caused a sensation by saying so after she finished fourth in the 100, won by U.S. teammate Gail Devers over Jamaica's Juliet Cuthbert and Privalova.
"If I'd won the 100, I'd have said the same thing," Torrence insists now. Yet what she actually said at the time was rather muddled and grew more so. "After the race, I thought I'd been sixth, so I said maybe two people ahead of me weren't competing fairly. But I'd actually been fourth, so that seemed to them to narrow it down to the medalists. I went to Juliet and told her, 'I didn't mean you on drugs,' and she said, 'So you must have meant Gail and Irina,' and later she told the press that. But I didn't mean Gail."