Straight Arrow : Archer From Madrid Proved He Could Hit Target Under Pressure in Barcelona
Antonio Rebollo’s role in the opening ceremony of the 1992 Summer Olympics lasted just a few seconds, but those seconds were so crucial that the attendant who handed him his bow was shaking so nervously that he appeared to be fluttering in the wind like the flags atop Montjuic Stadium.
Not Rebollo. He calmly notched the arrow, soon to be flaming, and shot it 230 feet into the air, over the caldron at the peristyle end of the stadium, igniting the flame that would burn during the 16 days of Barcelona’s glory.
“OK, you can relax now,” Rebollo told the attendant. “The Olympics have started.”
For Rebollo, that triumphant moment brought to a close two years of burned fingers, hurt feelings and frayed nerves.
The fingers and feelings were his as the challenge he stoically accepted proved both physically and emotionally painful. The nerves belonged to the organizers, who fretted that, no matter how many times he hit his target in practice, he would fail before a stadium filled with spectators, including numerous heads of state and other dignitaries, and a worldwide television audience.
The shot itself, although dramatic, was not that difficult for an archer of Rebollo’s caliber. Stricken by polio when he was 8 months old, he became an archer when he was 22 because he wanted to compete in a sport in which his disability would not be a handicap. In the 15 years between then and the time the Barcelona Olympic organizers contacted him, he won silver and bronze medals in the Paralympics.
But although it was apparent that Rebollo was physically capable, the organizers were concerned about whether he could emotionally handle the pressure of hitting his target on the one night, in the one instant, that a miss was unthinkable. It was not just him they suspected. From the time they began auditioning archers in 1990, the organizers ordered all of them to undergo psychological examinations. Of about 200, Rebollo proved the most likely to succeed.
The organizers were not overcome with joy.
Rebollo is from Madrid, which is part of the same country as Barcelona in name only. Barcelona is the capital of Spain’s independent-minded Catalan region, and the organizers were intent upon finding a Catalonian archer to perform the leading role in the opening ceremony.
“I was the thorn in their side,” he said during an interview last week at Easton in Van Nuys, where the now famous arrow was designed.
Even after Rebollo was selected in November, 1991, the organizers invited other archers to the stadium to watch on the one night each week that he flew from Madrid to Barcelona to practice.
Eventually, the organizers asked him to teach the other archers the technique he learned from a hunter in Santa Barbara while living with a friend in Buellton for a few months in 1988.
“I dropped the bow, went to the airport and flew back to Madrid,” Rebollo said.
A week later, the organizers, unable to find another archer as trustworthy, asked him to return.
But even then, they named a Catalonian as the alternate, and it was not until two hours before the opening ceremony that they informed Rebollo he definitely would go on.
The organizers could have ignited the flame automatically if he had missed, an unlikely prospect considering that he failed to hit the target only twice in nearly 700 practice shots. But just in case, he brought along a second arrow after extracting a promise from them that they would allow him another shot.
It was not necessary. The arrow sailed over the caldron at exactly the right spot, passing through the gas from a jet inside to ignite the flame. Most observers thought Rebollo’s arrow landed in the caldron, but that was never the plan.
“My very first emotion was one of satisfaction,” Rebollo said. “I knew so many people had worked so hard. If the flaming arrow went wrong, the whole ceremony would have been highly criticized, rightly so. I was very happy to see everybody relaxed.”
The bent, charred arrow was later found outside the stadium, in the area that had been roped off for that purpose, and has been donated to the Olympic museum at Lausanne, Switzerland.
Rebollo was in Van Nuys last week as a guest of Easton to receive a replica.
He said all the trials and tribulations were worth it after he saw how many Spanish children received archery sets from Santa Claus last Christmas. But, as for his personal fame, he said he would be happier if he could return to his quiet life as a cabinetmaker in Madrid.
Jim Easton, president of the Van Nuys company, has called Rebollo the world’s second best-known archer, behind Robin Hood.
“Robin Hood was, is and always will be,” Rebollo said. “My time is just for now. That is good. I don’t want to go the rest of my life signing autographs for people on the street.”
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