The letter was addressed to the Olympic Village. Vietnam vet to Olympic hero.
"Dear Bart Conner," it began.
A week had passed since the U.S. men had won their gold medal in gymnastics, levitating the nation with their triple somersaults and their smiles. The Olympics were but half over. Carl Lewis had not run or jumped or won any of his four gold medals. Mary Decker had not fallen on her face. Joan Benoit and Gabriella Andersen-Schiess had not yet entered the Los Angeles Coliseum or the nation's consciousness.
Something was stirring in the land. Day by day it grew, moving some to cry and some to cheer and some to write. Conner has received so many letters in the year since the Olympics that he has filed them on a computer disc. But the one he remembers most is the handwritten note, postmarked somewhere in California, from a disaffected veteran of America's lost war.
"He said when he got out of Vietnam he had such a sour feeling about what Americans were all about," Conner says. "He had lost faith in America because he was embarrassed by Vietnam . . . He said when we won the gymnastics medal, it rejuvenated his faith in this country and he was able to feel proud again."
This, then, is the legacy of the 1984 Olympics. The Games of the 23rd Olympiad were not so much an event as a feeling, not so much a competition as a national catharsis. Emotions long held in check -- or worse, disdain -- surfaced and soared. Chests swelled without embarrassment.
"You felt it," says Peter Ueberroth, president of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee. "You felt it all over."
The Los Angeles Olympics inaugurated an era of good feeling in America that united Ronald Reagan and Bruce Springsteen. "Born in the U.S.A.!"
The implications, Ueberroth says, are political and cultural and lasting.
"It will play a part in history," he says. "It gave a message this country won't understand for a long time about the quality of people and good old-fashioned American know-how."
Americans will remember these Games for the embarrassment of riches -- 83 gold medals and an unexpected $215 million surplus generated by the first free-enterprise Olympics.
A year before the opening ceremonies, when these results were unthinkable, when the Soviet boycott was an unarticulated fear, Ueberroth predicted that the Olympics would be the biggest political event of 1984. "I'm wrong 99 percent of the time, but I was right that time," he says. "So many in the political arena make their way by being doomsayers. That's the safe road to take . . . Here, people said, 'We're going to do it despite the doomsayers.' Hopefully, political leaders will learn they can take the high road. That's what the president did."
The morning after the Olympic flame was doused, President Reagan addressed the U.S. athletes with words and themes that resounded in his acceptance speech at the Republican convention a week later and throughout the campaign. "There was something very special about this Olympics. There was a special spirit to it," Reagan told the U.S. medalists. "You gave us something to be unified around and cheer for together."
Perhaps Monte Nitzkowski, a history teacher and coach of the U.S. water polo team, put it best. "I think we needed to really have an opportunity to turn back into ourselves," he said. "We needed to reestablish on an individual basis that tremendous pride that comes through patriotism. This was an overwhelming showcase for it."
It wasn't entirely an accident. "It was a little bit by design," Ueberroth says. "The torch relay was intended to rekindle a patriotism in this country. It became bigger than it was supposed to be."
For almost three months before the Games began, the torch wound its way across the country, through small towns and big cities, country roads and freeways. In his speech to the Republican convention, Reagan recalled the trek and a Vietnamese immigrant in San Francisco who stood with his son on his shoulders "to cheer a 19-year-old black man pushing an 88-year-old white woman in a wheelchair as she carried the torch."
The relay began in New York on May 8, the day the Soviets announced their boycott. Rafer Johnson, the 1960 Olympic decathlon champion, was the first to carry the torch and the last. By the time it arrived at the Los Angeles Coliseum on July 28, the stage was set.
That afternoon, the stage was set and set again. The opening ceremonies were an exercise in Busby Berkeley burlesque, orchestrated opulence: 10,000 singers and dancers, 2,500 pigeons, 1,065 balloons, 270 jitterbuggers, 200 breakdancers, 84 piano players in baby blue tuxedos and one rocket-propelled astronaut.
"I didn't want to go because I had been at the opening ceremonies in 1932 and that capped everything," says Julia Wark, 79, who was the assistant to the administrator of the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics and one of about 35,000 volunteers for the 1984 Games. "It was a little too Hollywood. I was able to contain myself until the first contingent from Greece came in and then the Chinese and the instantaneous outburst of affection for the Romanians . . . My husband said my face lit up. Until then I was very skeptical. I said, 'Show me.' They showed me."
At the time, it seemed ludicrously excessive. Who knew that by fluke or design they had set exactly the right tone? For the next two weeks, the Olympics would treat America to a succession of emotional epiphanies. Just when you thought you had had enough, there was more. Greg Louganis. Mary Lou Retton. Jeff Blatnick.
"It was a total emotional catharsis," says Bob Gaughran, venue director for water polo. "Talk about blurs. You know what blur I see? Those strange Olympic colors. The green guys would seat you and the purple guys would direct you and the whole blur came together in a cacophony of lights and colors and starting pistols."
And so it was on opening day. Just when you had had enough, there was Rafer Johnson, 48 years old and cramping, trying to get to the top of those rickety aluminum stairs.
For Ueberroth, that is the enduring memory: a solitary figure in white, stark against the night, alone with his task.
So it began. Day 2: Nancy Hogshead and Carrie Steinseifer, two U.S. swimmers, tie -- to the 100th of a second -- in the 100-meter freestyle. They win the first two of the United States' 29 gold medals in swimming. Right then, we should have known. Three U.S. cyclists win medals, the first since 1912. Steve Lundquist sets a world record in the 100-meter breaststroke, the first of 10 in the Games, but the image that endures is him reaching into the pool to console his friend and rival, John Moffet, who waited eight years to swim in this race and tore a muscle in the preliminaries.
Day 3: Mary Lou Retton makes her debut and a new cry fills the land. "Ten! Ten!" Day 4: The United States beats China, the world champions, for the gold medal in men's gymnastics. Conner calls it "the night the earth stood still."
"I still look back upon it as if it were a dream," he says. "You relive it and yet there's a touch of unreality to it. It strikes me at strange moments. It's just bits and pieces here and there.
"We knew after Peter Vidmar's bar routine that we had enough of a lead, that Tong Fei needed a 10.6 for them to win. At that instant, Abie (Grossfeld, the coach) or somebody said, 'There's no way they can beat you.' You knew that in the next 20 minutes someone is going to drape a gold medal around your neck. You talk but everything seems trite. I said to Jim Hartung, 'This made my day.' He said, 'Are you kidding? This made my life.'
"As we walked up there, I was pretty grounded. Peter Vidmar was hyperventilating almost. I told him, 'Relax, Peter, relax. Take deep breaths.' You're kind of numb in a way, numb to the sensation of the whole thing. I thought I'm not going to be overwhelmed. I'm going to savor this. Later, people told us it was a turning point. When we got back to the village, people said, 'Great things are happening at these Games.' "
Day 5: The U.S. women's gymnastics team wins the silver medal and the populace tries to catch its breath. Day 6: Eighteen months after undergoing surgery for Hodgkin's disease, Jeff Blatnick, a 220-pound Greco-Roman wrestler, wins the gold medal and kneels and cries.
He tells the world about the surgery that removed his spleen and his appendix and about the pain of taking a shower after radiation treatments. He says these are the first tears he has shed since the death of his brother seven years before.
"Tears of joy," he says. "Not tears of despair."
The tears embarrass him now. But on the victory stand, all he could think about was how embarrassed he was "to be there and not generate any more tears. I wasn't misty-eyed at all," he says. "You know how you feel after a good cry? Just that inner peace, so content. I was warm and glowing, a perfect time for cookies and milk. I know there's got to be some TV camera poked in my face. I had nothing left. I sang the national anthem because I didn't know what else to do."
A year later, what remains is a sweet spot inside, an internal glow. "The moment dulls," he says. "After awhile you don't pick out the details anymore. You look and smile and draw on the warm memory."
Days 7-16: They begin to run together. Black Friday, the day Los Angeles is supposed to stand still, there is no traffic, no smog. There is only Mary Lou. Mary Lou! Los Angeles still is echoing with the reverberation of all those 10s when Carl Lewis wins his first gold medal and the crowd, at least for that one day. Joan Benoit wins the first women's marathon and circles the Coliseum, a flag in one hand and her cap in the other. Her Maine reserve melts in the afternoon heat and she basks in the sun and the affection until Gabriella Andersen-Schiess staggers into the stadium, dehydrated and oblivious. Never was the line between courage and accomplishment, obsession and madness so clear.
Edwin Moses, the 400-meter man, wins his second gold medal in eight years and continues to hurdle into athletic history. Life is sweet until he is arrested (and subsequently acquitted) on a charge of solicting while driving a Mercedes with license plates that say: OL-YMPYN.
Lewis wins his second gold medal in a week and is booed because he dares not to extend himself in the long jump. He wins his third medal and then his fourth, anchoring the U.S. 4x100 meter relay to a world record. But he wins no hearts and fewer endorsements.
Mary Decker wins nothing at all. In the 3,000 meters, she gets tangled up with Zola Budd and then with the recriminations.
What moral is there to glean from the fates of these three -- Moses, Lewis and Decker -- who expected so much and in the end were humbled by the expectations? There wasn't time to consider such questions then, there was only the rush of events and impressions: Michael Gross' arm span, Daley Thompson's smile, Anton Josipovic's gesture. He had won the gold medal in the light heavyweight division because Evander Holyfield had knocked out Kevin Barry after the referee ordered a break. Josipovic didn't want to win it this way. When he reached for Holyfield's hand and hauled him to the top of the podium to share the golden moment, he dignified the entire two-week enterprise.
In the end, Carlos Lopes of Portugal ran 26 miles, 385 yards into the Coliseum and was showered with fireworks, a profusion of noise and color and spent emotion. "I can remember when they did the final deal, we watched those fireworks and we kept saying, 'God, how many more are they going to do?' " Bob Gaughran says. "Well, that's the Olympics. The whole thing was too much."
For the medalists, it didn't end there. They toured the country and learned what they had wrought, leaving baggage and laundry and time zones in their wake. It all caught up with them in Dallas. There was one last breakfast in one last banquet room. Olympic officials made the predictable speeches about patriotism and athletic courage and the meaning of it all.
"Then the manager of the hotel stood up and said, 'We thought and thought how to express what you mean to us and here it is,' " Monte Nitkowski says.
"Every door opened and the entire staff, cooks banging on pots and gardeners with rakes, all 1,500 employes paraded in and marched around. The kids jumped up. Everybody had tears in their eyes. It was right from the heart."
Conner says people still come up to him and tell him where they were the night the U.S. gymnasts won the gold medal. They want to touch him, to embrace the feeling all over again.
"They walk up to you and hug you," he says, "and you don't know these people, but they have shared something with you they can't explain."
That's okay. Neither can Jeff Blatnick. He tours the country still, giving motivational speeches to corporate groups and cancer societies.
His voice is strangely dispassionate when he speaks of that time, as if wary of treading on a miracle.
"The pictures speak louder than anything I can say," he says quietly. "Words might wreck it."