BARCELONA '92 OLYMPICS : Reveling in Spotlight of World : Manana Comes to the City : The scene: Silence, then an explosion of sound finally marks the end to years of waiting.


At 8 p.m. local time, a hush came over the city. It was almost as if a giant Leonard Bernstein had stood, tapped his baton on the podium and raised his arms to signal the magic moment.

And then, suddenly, from balcony and corner bar, from high above and down below, came the sounds of symphonies, of musical joy that signaled the beginning of the end of the long wait for the Olympics to take place here.

You didn't have to be in Olympic Stadium to know that the opening ceremony of the 25th Summer Olympics had begun. Television sets everywhere delivered the message. Barcelona is a dense, compact city that houses its millions almost exclusively in high-rise apartments. Its residents carry on through the heat and humidity of a Mediterranean summer with windows and doors open. And from those high rises came a crescendo of sound-challenging description. It was Placido Domingo in big-city stereo. It was the Hollywood Bowl by the sea.

And so it had begun, after so many years of anticipation. For Barcelona, which still has remnants of unfinished construction and unrounded edges everywhere, there is no manana. Piles of loose bricks and unused lumber have been stepped over. Let the Games begin. Today, the world's best jumpers and runners and throwers and hitters and riders and servers and hurdlers and rowers and cyclists will be on display.

Also, the world's best slam dunkers.

The beginning is none too soon. As has been the case in recent Olympics, the hype threatens to outdo the Games. A Sports Illustrated party somehow fittingly capped a week of formal gushing and guzzling with a gathering, on a large ship in Barcelona harbor, of 1,000 or so of the magazine's closest personal friends. Once all of the passports and corresponding invitations had been checked and the guests had filed through the line and gotten onto the boat an hour or so after arrival, they were treated to a harbor fireworks show that got a bit out of control and burned half a hillside below Montjuic.

On the afternoon of the day Barcelona was to open its Olympics, the main tourist area near the waterfront was its normal buzz of activity. The area is called Las Ramblas--loosely translated, "a place to walk." It is known for its many fine restaurants, many fine shops, many fine places to stroll and many fine pickpockets. You can sit in the middle of the 40-yard wide Las Ramblas, under a cafe umbrella and surrounded by pleasant greenery, and the first thing the waiter will say is a warning to keep a close watch on purses and shoulder bags.

"They are good here," he says, knowing no further explanation is needed of who "they" are.

The entrance to Las Ramblas is marked by a huge statue of Cristobol Colon, and directly behind the pigeon-pocked Cristobol is a harbor now filled with row after row of massive, modern cruise ships. Had Cristobol had access to the captain's wheel in one of those, he could have discovered America in a couple of days.

To the north of the main harbor is the athletes village, a long row of high rises that has sprung upon the Barcelona skyline and given the city's drive along the sea a feel similar to Lakeshore Drive in Chicago. The athletes village, surrounded by new patches of grass and saplings freshly planted along narrow streams of water, is inland, slightly beyond binocular reach of the new, white sand beaches. The measurement of binocular reach is only significant because Spanish women, usually about half of those sunbathing on any given beach, do so topless. Many stores near beaches sell female bathing suit bottoms. Period.

This is a city that doesn't blush. Mostly, it doesn't have time to. Nor the space. Its people hustle about by taxi or subway. Ten metro stops can take as little as 20 minutes. And neighbors need to be friendly, if not best friends, because their balconies connect and their breakfast conversations drift out the window and into the next apartment.

But Saturday night, there seemed to be no need, nor desire, to be anything but best of friends with one's neighbors. The orchestras and the voices of an Olympic opening ceremony spilled out of the television sets and over the balconies, hundreds of thousands of them draped proudly with the gold-and-red striped flags of this city's Catalan heritage. Those below the apartment sat in quiet little street cafes and listened, proud looks on their faces.

To the people of Barcelona, those who couldn't or didn't pay the price for tickets to the opening ceremony, what happened Saturday night was an explosion of sound and fury. Only this one signified something for every one of them.

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