BUCHAREST, Romania — For everyone at the Los Angeles Olympic Games last summer, there was a moment, sooner or later, when it became clear what kind of Olympiad this would be: one to remember or one to forget.
For the 127 athletes from Romania, the small East European country that defied the Russians, boycotted the boycott and became the only Soviet Bloc country to take part, that moment came very early. Any lingering doubts about the wisdom of their appearance was swallowed up in the roar of the standing ovation by nearly 100,000 spectators, greeting the Romanians as they trooped into the Coliseum behind their blue, yellow and red flag.
Some of the Romanians wept.
The warmth and enthusiasm of the spectators, Romanian sports officials say, helped propel their athletes to the performances that won them 20 gold medals--second only to the United States.
The applause is still ringing in their ears.
"In football, you know, the crowd is the 12th player, and that's the way it was in Los Angeles," said Septimiu F. Todea, secretary general of Romania's National Council for Physical Education and Sport, in a recent interview. "Your fans encouraged our athletes with such warm feelings. Really, you contributed to our success."
For a country of only 23 million people in an area about the size of Pennsylvania and New York, Romania's athletic prowess, as in the case of its sinewy little gymnasts, was all out of proportion to its size. All told, Romania walked away with 53 medals, the third-highest total behind the United States and West Germany.
Romanian men did well in their traditional strongholds of weightlifting and wrestling. But the women--led by a 17-year-old wisp of a gymnast named Ecaterina Szabo, twirling and tumbling in the footsteps of Nadia Comaneci--proved the power of the Romanian team and provided what was, arguably, the dramatic high point of the Los Angeles games. All velvety European grace to Mary Lou Retton's brash American power, Szabo won four gold medals, but lost the crowning gold for all-round women's gymnastics by five hundredths of a point as Retton bounded off the pommel horse in a final vault for a perfect 10.
For Aurica Stoian, an ebullient sports official who spent a year working on logistics for the trip to Los Angeles--along with his colleagues, Stoian insists there was never any doubt that there would be a trip to Los Angeles--the fondest memories have less to do with drama than with patriotic ardor for a country that does not often register high in the consciousness of Americans.
It was at Lake Casitas near Santa Barbara, where Romania's powerful women rowers were quickly dubbed by their teammates "our golden fleet"--and not for the color of their hair. In the first six rowing events, Stoian recalls with a grin, that the Romanian women captured five gold medals and one silver. The Romanian flag went up and down like a semaphore and "they played our national anthem so many times that morning that people learned the tune."
Romania's first Olympic triumph, of course, was in just getting there. There is no evidence that the Soviets have exacted any retribution for this breach of the boycott, but the decision to take part in the Los Angeles Games is still a delicate subject among Romanian officials. They are exceedingly careful not to gloat.
Did Romania stand up to the Russians?
Junior sports officials tend to smile at the question. Their heads bob up and down in silent assent while their superiors gaze poker-faced into middle distance and produce the prescribed answer. No, Romania simply believes in Olympic participation as a way of strengthening peace and friendship among nations, and hasn't missed an Olympics since 1924.
"What others do is up to them," Petre Focseneanu, deputy secretary general of the National Sports Council, said with a dismissive wave of his hand. "As for us, we do not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries."
Speaking privately, another official said that the decision to go to the Games was taken in keeping with Romania's long effort to follow an independent foreign policy, despite its membership in the Warsaw Pact. Romania is the only pact member that does not allow the stationing of Soviet or other foreign troops on its soil and the only one to maintain relations with Israel after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. It has also publicly criticized the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1979.
Despite these differences with Moscow on weightier matters than sports events, the official said, the decision to take part in the Olympics was more than a "symbolic" gesture: "There were real risks involved."
Romanian officials now tend to believe that the Soviets, for reasons still unclear, soured on the Olympics only in early 1984, then simply waited for a convenient pretext to pull out.