empty olympic stadium seats

“Don’t Look at the Romanians!” How We Broke the Rules and the Tension at the 1984 Summer Olympics

guest post by Paul Whitlock, senior pastor at Church of the Palms, Sun City

The Olympics come to town in the summer every four years. This year, Rio de Janeiro is the town for the 2016 Summer Olympic games. With much of the world talking about the games, I wanted to share with you some of my memories of the Olympics.

Wendy and I were both fortunate enough to sing in the 1000-voice Olympic Choir that performed at the Opening Ceremonies of the 1984 games in Los Angeles. I remember that time so vividly. There were long practices and even longer lectures about appropriate behavior—that even a joke, if deemed inappropriate, would put us in trouble with security. In 1984, the Romanians had broken through the proverbial wall and didn’t follow Moscow’s lead to boycott the games. So, we were sternly lectured by security to leave the Romanians alone: “Don’t talk with, point at, or even look at the Romanians!” The organizers feared the worse during that Cold War era. And yes, told us that our actions could lead to WWIII!

On the day of the Opening Ceremonies, all of the athletes from around the world, including the Romanians, and the performers for the Opening Ceremonies were packed into the L.A. Sports Arena (which was a fairly small basketball arena). The tension right before ceremonies started was intense! There was an eerie silence. Here were twelve thousand or so people utterly quiet.

Then suddenly, one of the American athletes pulled out a beach ball, blew it up, and the Americans began hitting it up into the air. Security tried to confiscate it but as soon as they would catch up to it, another beach ball came out and then another and another. The organizers had thought of a lot of scenarios, but the silliness of the American spirit was not one of them!

Amazingly, one of the beach balls kept bouncing around the arena—going from country to country. Soon, it was an unstated goal to get that beach ball around the world. The American athletes were on the ground floor of the arena and they hit it up to the next level. That group sent it flying to the next country. With every flight of the ball, people erupted into laughter and “oooohs” and “ahhhhs”. As the beach ball would reach the next country, that group would come alive with excitement. The silence that had been palpable was replaced with sheer joy. And one beach ball made it around the free world despite the organizers’ attempts to stop it.

The Romanian athletes were sheltered far away from all the others and were the only group on the top level of the arena. While their athletes smiled—I had been a rebel and looked at them— the joy was restrained. The Romanian coaches and officials accompanying the athletes sat, for the most part, with their arms crossed, lips pressed together, and their faces reflecting their disgust at all the events.

Making the beach ball travel around the free world was clearly not enough for all of us assembled that day. That beach ball had to make it through the wall of ideology, past the security forces, and reach the Romanians. Anything else would be disastrous. It came close several times, but it kept falling short. It seemed impossible for anyone, even the best athletes the world could offer, to hit the ball high enough to penetrate the citadel erected around the Romanians.

When hope was almost lost, one athlete from a country of unknown origin, in the section right below the Romanians, hit the beach ball high and far. “This one,” I thought, “has a chance.” The long arms of security reached up from the walkway between sections and appeared to intercept it. Just then, one of the athletes from Romania reach down and tipped the beach ball away from security into the section where the Romanians sat. The whole arena stood and a thunderous applause erupted as the Romanians bounced the ball back and forth. Once security realized the futility of trying to stop the wave of emotion, the ball bounced to the Romanians several more times.

Later, during the actual Opening Ceremonies, with a few other rebels, I ran past the security guards, leapt a fence, and ran on to the field and danced with the athletes assembled. I danced with the people from Iraq and Italy. We celebrated the spirit of oneness that we had. Because, at that moment, it didn’t matter what politicians from our respective homelands did or didn’t do. We knew the world was one.

Fast-forward 32 years and now I am troubled by the expense of the Olympics; each host country builds massive stadiums which soon will be abandoned while the poor remain hungry. Indeed, recent history indicates that the International Olympic Committee, known for receiving bribes, favors countries with dictators because they can get what they want: a smoothly run competition where any dissenting voice is locked up or simply disappears never to return. Olympic spirit has been replaced with greed and scandal, all at the expense of the poor. And, for the first time in my life, I ask, is it time to end the charade? Have the Olympics run their course? Time will tell. Meanwhile, the poor in Rio de Janeiro cry out. Who will hear them as the world leaves town?