As the American players were presented with their gold medals Michael Jordan, whose earnings of around dollars 25m (pounds 13m)a year make him probably the richest sportsman on earth, stood proudly wrapped in the Stars and Stripes. He was the epitome of US patriotism, the proof that even highly paid men put pride in their country above price. Or was he?
No one doubts Jordan's feelings for his native land - he could have spent his well-earned break from the Chicago Bulls resting even more than his current more-golf-than-basketball schedule allows - and afterwards he listed the gold medal as being among the greatest of his achievements. But the US flag was not just around his shoulders for show, it was there for what it hid as well.
Jordan earns the sort of money to wear Nike clothes that could help rebuild Third World economies, but what he had on was a tracksuit designed by a US Olympic Committee's sponsor, Reebok, and one that every medal winner was expected to wear at presentation ceremonies. Jordan had obeyed orders, had paid lip service to the commercial interests of his masters, but had concealed the rival manufacturer's mark with the flag.
'The lesson to be learned,' he said afterwards, 'is that if you hire 12 Clint Eastwoods to do a job then don't ask what bullets they have in their guns. We agreed not to deface the Reebok outfits so it was a convenient way out of things. I don't want people to think I was cheapening the flag. There's no way I'd demean the US flag.' Oh no?
It was a discomfiting end to what was not an entirely uplifting tale in the first place. The fact that the Americans chose to send the cream of their National Basketball Association to the Games became their prerogative once the world voted, against US wishes, to allow professionals into the 1992 Games. But once they embarked on selecting players like Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, the gold medal became a foregone conclusion. And stripped of doubt, sport is no longer a competition. It is show business.
The prevailing view among American journalists before the Games was 'wouldn't it be wonderful if they got beaten by Lithuania' but that was the impossible dream. Late on Saturday night the two best teams in the Olympic tournament should have been competing for the gold medal; instead we had a one-sided charade won as soon as the US announced 10 of their 12-man squad last September. The score was the United States 117, Croatia 85, Sport 0.
After 10min 16sec of the first half, Croatia had a 25-23 lead but in show business vernacular that was just a tease. The Americans simply stepped up to 90 per cent effort from 80 and within five minutes they were out of sight. You could not fail to be impressed by the skills and athleticism of the people before you, but as a contest it was nothing. It was about as relevant as a dancing competition between the Bolshoi Ballet and the local troupe in the village hall.
'I can't see the rest of the world catching up ever,' Magic Johnson, who added 11 to the points mountain, said. 'Not while countries keep splitting up. If the Soviets had stuck together, maybe. Croiatia proved tonight a com bined Yugoslavia would have been strong. But if you think the United States can start sending college boys to play these people you're wrong. Send college boys against this lot and you have big problems.'
The biggest problem for the American coach, Chuck Daly, on Saturday was to give his players sufficient time on court to satisfy their not inconsiderable egos. In the first half Bird, who is only half-fit because of a back problem, was on the sidelines and a measure of the tension he and his team-mates were under could be gauged by the fact that he spent the majority of the time sprawled out on the floor. Prone with pressure he was not.
Instead he played for 12 minutes in the second half (yes, 12min 0sec, it was as well planned as that), loping around on the periphery and failing to score. Jordan and Johnson, the other two in the great triumvirate, held court for 23 and 28 minutes respectively, trying their utmost to outdo each other for party tricks.
The crowd were in their pockets as firmly as the ball was through the hoop and have been since the Americans reached Barcelona. They may not epitomise the Olympic spirit, they may not stay in the Olympic Village, preferring five-star hotels, but the US basketball team has been the biggest attraction at the Games. 'They have queued for hours to watch us practise,' Johnson said, 'they even queue to watch us get on the bus.' And sure enough a massive crowd was outside the Badalona stadium to see them leave.
Minutes earlier, the announcer inside had voiced the Olympic dream. 'We want to go with a final wish,' he had said. 'Friends for life.' Olympic reality is that another dream will be created, another NBA all-star collection for Atlanta 1996.
'If we came back with a lesser team,' Daly said, 'the media would immediately jump on the other wagon. The US did not vote for this, it was the rest of the world. They wanted to see the best players in the Olympics. One hundred and eighty countries have watched the final tonight, about three billion people, and if somewhere a 13-year-old boy now wants to be a Magic, a Jordan or a Bird it will have been a good thing. It gives people dreams to chase. I think something like this will happen in many, many sports.'
It was a persuasive but flawed argument and was exposed as such by Bird. Asked how he felt when he was on the winners' rostrum, he replied: 'Since I was young I wanted to play in the Olympics and yes, I was proud to get a gold medal. But if the games had been a bit closer it would have meant more. When you win by 50 points every night it takes something from it.'
Success is a satisfying drug only when mixed with a feeling of achievement. The 'dream team' were magnificent entertainment and overwhelming winners. But they missed the point.
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