For everyone at the Los Angeles Olympic Games last summer, there was a moment, sooner or later, when it became clear what kind of Olympiad this would be: one to remember or one to forget.
For the 127 athletes from Romania, the small East European country that defied the Russians, boycotted the boycott and became the only Soviet Bloc country to take part, that moment came very early. Any lingering doubts about the wisdom of their appearance was swallowed up in the roar of the standing ovation by nearly 100,000 spectators, greeting the Romanians as they trooped into the Coliseum behind their blue, yellow and red flag.
Some of the Romanians wept.
The warmth and enthusiasm of the spectators, Romanian sports officials say, helped propel their athletes to the performances that won them 20 gold medals--second only to the United States.
The applause is still ringing in their ears.
"In football, you know, the crowd is the 12th player, and that's the way it was in Los Angeles," said Septimiu F. Todea, secretary general of Romania's National Council for Physical Education and Sport, in a recent interview. "Your fans encouraged our athletes with such warm feelings. Really, you contributed to our success."
For a country of only 23 million people in an area about the size of Pennsylvania and New York, Romania's athletic prowess, as in the case of its sinewy little gymnasts, was all out of proportion to its size. All told, Romania walked away with 53 medals, the third-highest total behind the United States and West Germany.
Romanian men did well in their traditional strongholds of weightlifting and wrestling. But the women--led by a 17-year-old wisp of a gymnast named Ecaterina Szabo, twirling and tumbling in the footsteps of Nadia Comaneci--proved the power of the Romanian team and provided what was, arguably, the dramatic high point of the Los Angeles games. All velvety European grace to Mary Lou Retton's brash American power, Szabo won four gold medals, but lost the crowning gold for all-round women's gymnastics by five hundredths of a point as Retton bounded off the pommel horse in a final vault for a perfect 10.
For Aurica Stoian, an ebullient sports official who spent a year working on logistics for the trip to Los Angeles--along with his colleagues, Stoian insists there was never any doubt that there would be a trip to Los Angeles--the fondest memories have less to do with drama than with patriotic ardor for a country that does not often register high in the consciousness of Americans.
It was at Lake Casitas near Santa Barbara, where Romania's powerful women rowers were quickly dubbed by their teammates "our golden fleet"--and not for the color of their hair. In the first six rowing events, Stoian recalls with a grin, that the Romanian women captured five gold medals and one silver. The Romanian flag went up and down like a semaphore and "they played our national anthem so many times that morning that people learned the tune."
Romania's first Olympic triumph, of course, was in just getting there. There is no evidence that the Soviets have exacted any retribution for this breach of the boycott, but the decision to take part in the Los Angeles Games is still a delicate subject among Romanian officials. They are exceedingly careful not to gloat.
Did Romania stand up to the Russians?
Junior sports officials tend to smile at the question. Their heads bob up and down in silent assent while their superiors gaze poker-faced into middle distance and produce the prescribed answer. No, Romania simply believes in Olympic participation as a way of strengthening peace and friendship among nations, and hasn't missed an Olympics since 1924.
"What others do is up to them," Petre Focseneanu, deputy secretary general of the National Sports Council, said with a dismissive wave of his hand. "As for us, we do not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries."
Speaking privately, another official said that the decision to go to the Games was taken in keeping with Romania's long effort to follow an independent foreign policy, despite its membership in the Warsaw Pact. Romania is the only pact member that does not allow the stationing of Soviet or other foreign troops on its soil and the only one to maintain relations with Israel after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. It has also publicly criticized the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1979.
Despite these differences with Moscow on weightier matters than sports events, the official said, the decision to take part in the Olympics was more than a "symbolic" gesture: "There were real risks involved."
Romanian officials now tend to believe that the Soviets, for reasons still unclear, soured on the Olympics only in early 1984, then simply waited for a convenient pretext to pull out.
The Reagan Administration provided the anticipated pretext when it refused to give a visa to a known KGB agent whom the Soviets proposed to send as an Olympic official. After that, Soviet complaints about security arrangements were just so much meringue on the cream pie the Kremlin was preparing to toss in America's face. Mostly, it missed.
Moscow announced its boycott--or "non-participation, as the Soviets still insist on calling it--on May 8. Between March 31 and May 14, the Soviet ambassador to Bucharest, Evgeny Tyazhelnikov, asked to see President Nicolae Ceausescu no fewer than four times, apparently to bring the recalcitrant Romanians on board.
The first two meetings were described in the official press in Bucharest as taking place in the usual "warm and comradely atmosphere." At the end, the atmosphere was no better than "comradely." A senior Western diplomat in Bucharest says that the Romanians told Moscow well in advance that they would send a team to Los Angeles. "The Soviets didn't like it, but they just decided not to go to the mat on this."
Most likely, the Soviets understood that Romania's participation in the Games would provide a useful boost for the country's morale at home and its prestige abroad. These are hard times for Romania, which has managed to pay off 40% of an $11.5 billion debt to the West since 1982, but only under a program of Draconian economic austerity.
Food and fuel are rationed in much of the country, prices of goods have soared, and central heating and electricity last winter, one of the coldest in this century, were turned back to a bare minimum while the use of private cars was banned for 2 1/2 months. Most street lights were turned off, and Romanians were asked to unplug household appliances, especially refrigerators, which, after all, wouldn't be needed with the heat turned down.
Last summer, the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee and the International Olympic Committee each contributed $60,000 to cover two-thirds of the cost of an air charter for the hard-strapped Romanian team. In addition, the Bucharest government reportedly decided to broadcast the games on television last summer only after the American organizers provided some discreet financial aid to cover the cost of a satellite feed from the West. Technicians quietly flown in by the ABC television network helped arrange the pickup, which evaded an Olympic blackout over the rest of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.
Apparently to avoid irritating the Russians any further, Romanian newspapers treated their team's singular success in low-key fashion, and when the team came home last August, the official celebrations were notably modest. The athletes met with senior sports officials and they marched in Bucharest in the annual parade on Aug. 23, marking the advent of Communist power in 1944. But President Ceausescu, an all-powerful figure whose official press ritually lavishes him with credit for all national achievements, did not meet with the returning athletes.
Public reaction to Romania's success, and popular feelings a year later, are hard to gauge. Visiting foreign journalists are free to wander at will in Bucharest, a grand old dowager of a city, filled with leafy streets and the faded baroque charms of fin de siecle villas embraced in wisteria vines. But the law requires Romanians to report any substantive conversation with a foreigner to police within 24 hours. This may account for a certain reticence on their part.
"Olympics? What Olympics?" one young man with seemingly fluent English said as he finished giving a wandering reporter street directions and hustled off.
Some diplomats said they sensed a certain pride, but no intense public interest, in the Games. But a young English instructor, encountered in a park, said that, in fact, there was great interest.
"It was wonderful," he said. "Of course everyone was proud, not just that we won so many medals, but that we were the only (Warsaw Pact) country to go to the Olympics."
Everyone, she said, understood that the Russians were pressuring Romania to join the boycott, and this led to a flurry of the gentle jokes that take the place of political comment. There was the story, for instance, about the telegram Moscow supposedly sent the Romanian leadership when the games were over:
"Congratulations. Stop. Romanian athletes' performance superb. Stop. Soviet oil and gas to Romania. Stop."
But was it a real Olympics without the Sovietss and the other East Europeans?
The Soviets, who entered and won only one "event"--small-bore sniping in the press--insisted that it was not. The Romanians, with all due respect to their comrades, disagree.
It is true, Septimiu Todea, of the National Sports Council, acknowledges, that Romania won a great many more medals at Los Angeles than in Moscow (6) in 1980 and Montreal (4) in 1976.
"But keep in mind," he said, "that a record 140 countries participated. And the number of Olympic records and personal-best performances could only have been set in conditions of very hard competition. It was in fact spectacular."
Romanian officials are equally unstinting in their praise of the conduct, facilities and organization of the Olympics, and most especially for Peter Ueberroth, who ran the Games.
"Peter Ueberroth's robust optimism and his pragmatic cleverness achieved the most fruitful and economic organization in the history of the modern Games," one senior sports official said.
Not to slight anyone, Petre Focseneanu adds that each of the last three games has been excellent in its own specific way and that "we would be very glad if the next Olympics are as good as the last two, despite the difficulties."
To be sure, there were disappointments. The Romanians had hoped to fare better than they did in boxing, fencing and shooting events, and they plan to work harder in these areas between now and 1988. And there is some unfinished business.
No doubt most people remember the women's 3,000-meter race in which Zola Budd and Mary Decker collided in a heap of tears and retribution. Less well remembered is Maricica Puica, who won the race, and might well have won it, anyway.
Puica, sports officials said, has never had a chance to run a race with Decker--at least a whole one--and remains "very interested" in doing so. Puica has won all three grand prix events she has entered so far this year, and at an international track and field event July 14 in Bucharest, she clocked the distance in 8 minutes 36 seconds.
And gymnast "Cati" Szabo, a young woman with the build of hummingbird and a handshake that suggests piano wire in place of tendons, would like another chance at Mary Lou Retton. Szabo, who answers questions in soft, measured monosyllables, but allows that she is more mature now and better able to cope with Olympian-sized events, perked up at the mention of Retton's name.
"Yes, sure," she said, popping her knuckles with a crunching sound. "I'd like very much to meet her again. And win. "