Dream Team Turned '92 Olympics From Contest Into Coronation

JIM LITKE
·6 min read

EDITORS — With the Tokyo Olympics postponed for a year because of the coronavirus pandemic, The Associated Press is looking back at the history of Summer Games. Here are some of the highlights of the 1992 Barcelona Games, where the “Dream Team” — a squad of NBA pros allowed in for the first time — predictably turned the competition into a coronation.

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They didn’t stop with the record books. Just for good measure, they rewrote the Olympic motto, too.

Swiftest. Highest. Strongest.

Ever.

The NBA players who made up the “Dream Team” at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics will be remembered as perhaps the greatest collection of talent in the history of sport. Led by Michael Jordan in his prime, flanked by all-arounders Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, and filled out with eight other players who wound up in the Hall of Fame, the squad was put together to avenge USA Basketball’s worst-ever finish — a bronze medal — at the Summer Games in Seoul just four years earlier.

They did, in the most dominating, celebrity-studded fashion imaginable and along the way, helped make hoops a truly global game. The Dream Teamers dined with royalty, toured the area’s nude beaches, lit up Monte Carlo’s casinos and nightclubs and still had enough energy left to pose for pictures with the teams they’d just crushed, wide smiles all around as dignitaries and assorted hangers-on rushed to crowd into the frame.

Simply put, no other nation, nor any combination of the 11 other nations competing for gold in 1992 had even a puncher’s chance.

“We didn’t come there to try and make world peace,” Karl Malone recalled in an interview with GQ.com. “We came there to win the gold medal and bring it back home and say to the other countries, ‘Now you’ve had our best.’”

Or maybe not.

The Americans were accused of bullying opponents, but in truth they saved their best performances for the team's trash-talking, closed-door scrimmages. In a candid moment years later, Jordan described one of those fierce intrasquad skirmishes as “the best game I ever played in.” Johnson confirmed an embarrassment of riches that the rest of the world couldn't match, saying he had so many good scoring options on a typical fast break that “I didn’t who to throw the ball to!”

The Dream Team’s average winning margin was 44 points. Croatia was the only team that made them sweat, and only for a few minutes in the first half of the gold medal game. Edging out to an early 25-23 lead, the Croatians were soon enough overrun and wound up pleading with some of their U.S. counterparts by game's end not to pad the winning score.

The final ended mercifully, 117-85, with the most memorable moment of the night provided during the medal ceremony when Jordan, determined to show loyalty to his own sponsor, Nike, draped a flag over one shoulder to cover the Reebok logo embroidered on the chest of the U.S. team's official uniforms.

NOT THE ONLY HIGHLIGHT

For all the hoopla, the Dreamers weren’t the only must-see TV the 1992 Summer Games produced. Native son and paralympic archer Antonio Rebollo made certain of that during the opening ceremony, lighting the tip of his arrow with the Olympic torch, then firing it across the night sky to ignite the giant Olympic cauldron set atop the far rim of the stadium. No lighting of the flame, in previous games or the three decades since, has ever matched it as spectacle.

A GOOD OMEN

Rebollo’s feat was an auspicious start for the first Summer Olympics since the end of the Cold War, laden as it was with political dramas large and small. For starters, there were threats to disrupt the games by the Basque separatist group ETA, which carried out deadly attacks in the region only a year earlier as part of a longstanding campaign for independence from Spain’s federal government. But there was plenty of tension on the international scene, too.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union prompted Baltic nations and former members Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to field their own teams for the first time in six decades, while the remaining dozen former Soviet republics — including Russia — competed as the Unified Team and edged out the United States for top spot on the medal table with 45 golds and 112 total.

Following reunification of East and West, Germany sent a single team for the first time since the 1964 Olympics and finished third. Back, too, for the first time since 1960 was South Africa, banned from eight successive Summer Games because of its government’s apartheid policies.

The breakup of the Yugoslavian republic, on the other hand, led to the first-ever Olympic appearances of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia.

WALK, DON’T RUN

The Games’ most inspirational moment was provided by British runner Derek Redmond, who tore a hamstring and hit the deck nearing the halfway point of a 400-meter semifinal. Determined to finish the race, Redmond got back on his feet and struggled with each step until — seemingly out of nowhere — his father, Jim, turned up at his side.

“It has been the only time in my life I could shout and swear at my dad,” Redmond said recently. “He just said, ‘We’ll finish this together.’ He got me from a hobble to a walk.”

The elder Redmond, who’d slipped out of the stands and onto the track unnoticed by officials, wrapped an arm around his son’s waist and the two navigated the final 100 yards together. They crossed the finish line to a standing ovation from 65,000 spectators and millions more looking in on television.

TRY THAT ON ICE

The Unified Team’s Vitaly Scherbo won four gold medals in a single day, five in individual events and six total in men’s artistic gymnastics. That performance tied U.S. speedskater Eric Heiden’s record for five individual golds in a single Olympics (equaled by U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps in 2008).

NOTABLE FIRSTS

The host country nabbed its first-ever Olympic running gold when Fermin Cacho won the 1,500-meters. Judoka Yael Arad won Israel’s first medal of any color, a silver, 20 years after 11 of her countrymen were massacred by the Palestinian terrorist group Black September at the 1972 Summer Games in Munich. A total of 169 nations were represented at the Barcelona Games and for the first time since those 1972 Games, there were no boycotts.