OLYMPICS / Barcelona 1992: Ideals under the flags of many nations: Richard Williams on the new world order Olympic Games

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The Independent Online
AN HOUR after the race, Elana Meyer had returned to the track. Pink-painted toenails protruded from the bottoms of her green and yellow South Africa track suit, its legs concealing the bloody tracks made by the spikes of her rivals during 25 gruelling laps in the humid air of the Olympic stadium.

Now, warmed down and relaxed, she was standing in the deserted stadium, near the finish line, just as she had done after her semi-final earlier in the week, talking quietly in Afrikaans with her husband, her coach and a couple of friends. She looked like she didn't want to leave.

The sight of Derartu Tulu slipping easily past her to win that semi-final had told Meyer that her chance of a gold was slim. And, while it might be painful for her to accept the proposition, her silver - the first track medal for a South African since 1952 - was, in fact, just what the Great Scriptwriter had ordered.

The special interest of British enthusiasts aside, it was impossible to find anything unsatisfactory in the result of Friday night's 10,000 metres final. It would have been hard to imagine a finer and more fitting end to this particular Olympic sub-plot than the sight of the first two places going to an Ethiopian and a South African, in that order. A gold for the 'new' South Africa, still in the preliminary stages of its emergence from the nightmare of apartheid, would have been a premature reward.

Some people would say that those words reduce Tulu and Meyer to the status of pawns in a game of politics, when all that should matter is the quality of their individual performances. Maybe we can get around to that when the world really does change. For now, it's worth thinking about the meaning of the flags that are raised at each medal ceremony. As the American runner John Carlos said in 1968: 'Why do they play national anthems? Why do we want to beat the Russians? Why do the East Germans want to beat the West Germans? Why can't everyone wear the same colours but wear numbers to tell them apart? What happened to the Olympic ideal of man against man?'

West Germans? East Germans? At least one of Carlos's wishes has come true, and the changing shape of nations has given the Games of the 25th Olympiad a dynamic all its own. No more Soviet Union, no more small but potent East Germany; instead we have Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia . . . and, perhaps for this engagement only, the team known as 'Independent Olympic Participant', a cryptic label that today reminds us of the horrors of Yugoslavia but which will have sporting historians scratching through the footnotes a hundred years from now.

By the standards of the last 50 years, these Games have been unusually free of big-bloc politics. The emergence of the new republics has been handled quietly; chauvinism has been under wraps. The rumblings from the East, from the increasingly powerful Chinese in particular, are still too faint to constitute a straight replacement for the old Red Menace. By the Games of the millennium, things may be very different.

So, at least until the world becomes a perfect place, we should be thankful for such sights as that of Derartu Tulu and Elana Meyer embracing in triumph on the track and then sitting together at the press conference, where the 21-year-old Ethiopian and the 25- year-old from Cape Town looked like sisters: both exquisitely slight, dark-haired, with small, fine features and quick, intelligent eyes.

In fact, you couldn't have been around the athletes in Barcelona for the past fortnight without coming to like the human race a little bit better. The bottom line is probably this: in two weeks of competition in 25 sports, involving about 10,000 athletes in the contest for 257 gold, silver and bronze medals, how many displays of bad behaviour did you notice on or around the fields of play?

Let's see. There were sendings- off for a British hockey player and a couple of spoilt Italian footballers. A disappointed Russian weightlifter hurled down his bronze medal. There was Charles Barkley's memorable explanation of a violent confrontation with an Angolan on the basketball court: 'He hit me and I hit him. You guys wouldn't understand. It's a ghetto thing.' There was the sprinter Gwen Torrence and her poorly timed outburst against the alleged druggies. There was the infamous, utterly fascinating and completely unresolvable affair of Hammou Boutayeb, Khalid Skah and Richard Chelimo. The odd elbow flew in the velodrome. And, er, that's about it.

Instead, there were countless displays of sporting dignity and grace under pressure. Everywhere you looked, somebody was doing something admirable, often in the face of a defeat that had rendered the previous four years a complete waste of time, or so it must have seemed. When the millionaire Sergei Bubka failed to make the sort of height he was vaulting in his junior days, he quietly folded his tent and slipped away into the night. When the exquisite Tatiana Goutsou fell from the beam, the first hand around her shoulders was that of her great rival, Svetlana Bouginskaya. When Gail Devers went sprawling over the line in the 100m hurdles, going from first to fifth in in the beat of a heart, she picked herself up and quietly congratulated the winner. If there was humiliation in her mind, she didn't let us see it; and because she didn't let us see it, it didn't exist.

The winner of that race, a 27- year-old from Thessalonika called Paraskevi Patoulidou, gave us just about the sweetest moment of the fortnight. The first Greek woman ever to take a medal, to cheers that could probably be heard from the top of Mount Olympus to the kitchens of the Seven Sisters Road, she could scarcely believe her fortune. 'I think I am dreaming now,' she told us. She wasn't. For 'real are the dreams of Gods, and smoothly pass / Their pleasures in a long immortal dream'. Dream on, dreamers.