In the Eighties, practically no one left the country, unless they were soldiers or members of the E Street Band or had won a Caribbean sweepstakes vacation. Beyond the expense of travel, other nations were strange: their food smelled licoricey, felt wormy, and tasted like lime peel and ginger ale and fire; their clothes were baggy and bright and rarely made of denim; and in their languages, they sounded like ducks or owls or wind chimes in a gale. But the Olympics were a time when the differences between cultures seemed to melt away: everyone was wearing some form of skintight Lycra, no one was shown eating food, and the interviews were all conducted in English. Although no one knew what to think of other countries, they wanted to believe the best. We were, after all, the world. As such, friends would gather in their bungalows and A-frames and Cape Cods and ranch houses to watch athletes with short-tempered coaches and no body fat reassure the viewers that beneath their cable-knit sweaters, insurance policies and love handles, they too were animals, creatures of sinew and bone, stone and flame. At these Olympic get-togethers, the friends sampled rice noodles and couscous and sake, played steel drums badly, learned the melody of the Angolan national anthem. A few even wore dashikis, and not in a peacenik, Frank Zappa sort of way.
Even livelier were the Olympic villages, self-contained cities constructed for the athletes’ use during the course of the Games. The villages were cultural portmanteaus, the juxtapositions jarring yet apposite: an onion-domed minaret might stand nose-to-nose with a pinecone-like pagoda, while at their feet perched conical goatskin tents imported from Cameroon. In the evenings, the French and Chinese delegations often hosted poetry readings, which were poorly attended, but the Jamaican DJ parties were legendary, odd testosterone-fueled scrums of reggae and dub, the hundreds of Olympians with overdeveloped shoulder muscles drinking seltzer water and trying very hard to look like people whose best friends were not their mothers and personal trainers. Only Brian Boitano (see Brian Boitano Eighties) seemed wholly at ease, shimmying through the crowd in a black Lyrca body suit that looked remarkably like his skate costume. Hey, he’d say, munching on some complimentary soy nuts, Buffalo Soldier! I love this one. Tossing the rest of the soy nuts into his mouth, he’d grab a pair of nearby Canadian curlers by the hand and start a conga line.
The central squares were the villages’ most boisterous locales, the action there an ethnologist’s dream. The Ukraine’s paddle-handed female swimmers could be found tossing Frisbees with the Haitian 4×400 meter relay team, trying without success to goad the lithe runners into a game of Slavic vs. Caribbean ultimate. Around the squares’ picnic tables, American gymnasts – with bangs so protruding they doubled as sun visors – would try to explain the plot of Dallas to Nigerian sprinters, while Czechoslovakian kayakers and Mongolian freestyle wrestlers might discuss the relative merits of U2 and the Police (see African Benefit Concert Eighties), the Romantic Czechoslovakians preferring Bono’s vocal gymnastics and the ambiguity of subject – after all, what was “With or Without You” about? God? A lover? Melanie Griffith? – while the Mongolians, raised on the merciless Gobi steppe, found solace in Sting’s poppy delivery while also appreciating the underlying nihilism of his sex-heavy lyrics. And no matter what time of day or night, the Russians, regardless of their sport, could be found in the center of the square playing chess. At first they challenged the athletes of other nations, but their victories were so quick they made the games unenjoyable for either player, even after the Russians volunteered to begin several pieces down. The last straw was a game between a Soviet ski jumper and Brian Boitano, in which the skier began the game with nothing but a king and three pawns and still bested Boitano in seven moves. After that, the Russians played only themselves.
In the crucible of the Olympic village, romance would sometimes flash, as a Swedish decathlete caught the eye of an Argentine equestrian striding flushed from the stables in her jodhpurs and lambskin boots. The difficulty of such encounters was occasionally heightened by political danger; once a Soviet high-jumper began an affair with a well-known American diver, and the first night he left her room, a troop of KGB guards wrestled him to the ground, asked him the name of his handler and his opinion of the Sicilian Defence. When he responded that he could handle himself and had never been to Sicily, they were about to inject him with a lethal dose of adrenalin, but the Soviet high-jumper opened the door, called them off, and explained to the diver that one must always use the Sicilian Defence when White opens the match with an advance of the Queen’s pawn.
But of course, the families watching from thousands of miles away saw none of this, although they suspected the world was darker and more complicated than the telecasts and predictable interviews revealed. Watching the Olympics in living rooms and dens, party guests would pause over their meals whenever any athletes exchanged words before an event or after, pale rice noodles dangling from their mouths, chopsticks balanced awkwardly between thumb and middle finger, searching for the deeper connections that bound them all together. Many recall the remarkable women’s 100m dash of 1988, when after winning the gold medal the Nigerian sprinter turned to the American who had placed second, embraced her, and began a long conversation that continued as they walked their victory lap hand in hand. Viewers tried to read the sprinters’ lips, eager to learn the truths housed in triumph, unable to know that the Nigerian was in fact asking her American counterpart: Who Shot J.R.?
The USSR spanned eleven time zones, which was a great source of pride for its citizens and premiers alike. Sometimes a member of the Politburo, watching the red sun fall past the onion domes of Red Square, would dial a Kamchatka number at random, and ask whatever bleary-eyed oil man or bureaucrat answered whether the sun was indeed rising over the Bering Sea. When, after a few moments, the sleepy easterner said, “Yes, yes,” the Politburo member back in Moscow would smile, spinning the antique globe by his desk, and say, “Good. Very good.” Russians only spoke Russian when Americans were present, to intimidate them – to each other they spoke English in growling monotone.
Naturally Americans were concerned, their states stretched thin over only six time zones. A sense of superiority was a longstanding national attribute, and a nearly two-to-one Soviet-American advantage was unacceptable. Everyone demanded the “time zone gap” be closed. To remedy the problem, Americans tried numerous tactics. Highly trained operatives parachuted into Siberia with outstanding vodka and thick gold coins in an effort to incite rebellion. Locals agreed on the condition that the Americans best them in chess, and although the Russians guzzled all the vodka before the first castling, the Americans, ignorant of the Sicilian Defence, captured nary a pawn (see Olympics Eighties). Another idea was to subdivide America’s time zones into twelve, but for the week it was implemented, chaos reigned as citizens set fire to clock towers and pounded their watches with the soles of their shoes, culminating in the Half Past Denver riots of 1985.
Direct conflict with the Soviets was impossible, since this was a cold war, and a hot war would require 1) a draft and 2) hardship. Hardship was unpopular in the Eighties, and no one much liked the idea of a draft, since it would decrease sexual opportunities (see Sex Drink Eighties) and weaken households against the sociopaths always waiting to dismember and eviscerate the well-adjusted (see Horror Eighties). The United States might have settled for a less militaristic advantage, such as athletics, but throughout the decade, the Russians, with their manly female swimmers, hard-jawed gymnasts and elven figure skaters, took back to Moscow many kilos of gold, silver, and bronze (see Olympic Eighties, Brian Boitano Eighties). Senators and shot-putters alike had visions of the Russians crowded into their hangar-sized gymnasia, heat shushing through vents, floury clouds of chalk blooming from the claps of their meaty hands, every man, woman, and child sporting a blood-red leotard, performing the Iron Cross and handstand pushups, cleaning and pressing barbells bowed with shiny plates.
Ultimately, government officials decided that the only way to close the time zone gap was to eradicate the Soviet Union altogether. Many words were spat about a wall in Germany, but everyone in the First World knew it was merely a symbol – the real barrier, the true wall, was the Iron Curtain itself, that three thousand kilometer shroud fashioned from the ore of the Krivoi Rog and the Kersh peninsula, and hung from God knows what as it Geigered its way from the Black Sea to the Baltic. Nothing – neither person nor manufactured good nor idea – could pass from one side to the other without the imprimatur of the Politburo. Only one solution presented itself: Melt the Iron Curtain. Accordingly, the CIA purchased a hundred thousand acetylene torches, which they gave to democratically-minded citizens of the nations whose eastern borders rubbed against the Curtain, and at a perfectly coordinated moment of Slavic twilight, the citizens pressed the sharp flames into the metal. In satellite images it appeared that the Earth’s molten core was exploding to the surface along an immense fault line in central Europe. The Americans had also given out a certain number of cinderblock-sized mobile phones, and some time after sunset, when holes were growing in the wall as though it were a shabby coat left too long unmothballed, one of the operatives rang an Austrian stationed outside Bratislava. The Austrian pulled the mobile phone from his satchel, yanked out its antenna with his teeth, and held it with both hands to his ear. Peering through a gap the size of a bicycle wheel, the Austrian said hello, and that he was there. The CIA operative asked if he could see anything. In the foreground was nothing but a dull tableau of skiffs floating atop the lazy Morava. But the Austrian was also an amateur astronomer, and after setting the phone at his feet, he pulled a telescope from his satchel and peered through the hole. “I see a man,” he shouted down at the mobile phone, “at a window. Holding a telephone. A globe is spinning. He’s playing chess against himself. He’s winning.”
African Benefit Concert Eighties
What did people know about Africa? Very little. There were drums. Ancient melodies. Rains, which they blessed. It was waiting there for them. But no one was exactly sure they wanted to go. There were reports of glottal stops, ten-year-olds with Kalashnikovs, strange diseases old and new, a distinct lack of air conditioning. On late night TV flashed photos of ribby, potbellied children who could eat for a month for less than the price of a pair of fuzzy dice. So thousands sent monthly checks, blessing the children down in Africa.
It was at just such a moment that the African Benefit Concert was born. In this case, the check-writer was Bono, serving the second of two nonconsecutive terms as President of the Eighties (see Brian Boitano Eighties), sitting at an Edwardian rolltop in Cleveland, sending his $3.67 to eight-year-old Gabriela Ngangi, c/o the St. Claire Children’s Relief Fund. As always, Bono sent with the check a complimentary U2 concert shirt, smiling at the photo taped above the desk of Gabriela wearing an oversized T silkscreened with the image of an angry Caucasian child. As much as Gabriela seemed to be enjoying her memorabilia, as well as her millet and potable water, Bono knew she would be happier still if she had a chance to see him perform live. Being a man with a wide and disparate network of friends, Bono began calling them all: men in double-breasted suits who had “constituencies” and “interns”; matrons with blown-out hair who spent most of their days in Lycra leotards, women who had “time” and “money” and husbands they could cajole or guilt or blackmail into assisting them; other mulleted rockers who might have had similarly charitable thoughts as they glanced up from their own rolltop desks to admire photos of little smiling Mateo or Dominic or Gloria wearing shirts emblazoned with giant lips or drooling demons or the phrase “I Touch Myself”; and of course, the Archbishop Desmond Tutu. On the advice of the South African cleric and others who had actually been to Africa, Bono soon decided to move the venue from Johannesburg to New York and London, cities where it was less likely that black musicians and/or concertgoers would be arrested and/or shot.
The transatlantic concert was a televisual extravaganza. The telecast was simultaneous, the venues in New York and London connected via satellite, and at certain moments, the enormous screens would show a live video of the other venue’s act. The necessary technology was byzantine, but NASA engineers had stepped in to oversee the project. Besides the technical challenges, Bono feared a Soviet death ray might destroy the satellite mid-concert. The NASA engineers told him the Soviets probably had bigger fish to fry, and moreover that shooting down a satellite was an extraordinarily difficult task. But Bono’s dreams were plagued with TVs falling silent, lasers as red as the Soviet flag, stellar explosions as fiery gold as the hammer and sickle. He grew so desperate that he called his nemesis and fellow balladeer Sting to ask him to intervene with the Russians, since he had written a song about them. Sting told him he didn’t actually have any Russian friends. Bono mentioned that the Archbishop Desmond Tutu was his friend. Sting said he would see what he could do, then visited the Russian embassy inLondon, imploring the ambassador not to use the death ray. The ambassador excused himself, called Red Square, and discovered that there was neither a death ray nor a plan to shoot down the satellite. He returned to Sting, telling him the Russians would indeed refrain from using the death ray on the satellite, but only if Sting agreed to sing “Money for Nothing” at the concert, which he did.
U2 was scheduled to play three songs in the late afternoon in London, and as was his custom, Bono began their set with a plaintive stillness that slowly elided into a grandstanding strut – half soldier, half strumpet – that took him to the edge of the crowd. As the rest of the band continued cycling through an instrumental riff, Bono – shirtless in suspenders – spotted a young woman being crushed by other fans into the barrier beneath the stage. He waved for the ushers to pass her over, he leapt from the stage into the makeshift orchestra pit and directed them in pulling her from the crowd. As soon as she was body-surfed backward over the barrier, she collapsed into Bono’s arms, and as the rest of the band continued the hopeful four-bar riff, Bono slow-danced with her in a way that seemed as much avuncular as romantic, before kissing her hand and rushing back to the stage to finish the song, ending with a medley of “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Amazing Grace.”
Offstage left was Gabriela Ngangi, who loved “Amazing Grace” and admired Bono’s dancing. Bono had been devastated to think that his Gabriela would not have the chance to see him perform, and so he’d had her driven from her orphanage near the shore of Lake Victoria up to Kampala, and from there, she flew to London. Despite the protests of the nuns who ran her orphanage, she stayed with Bono and the rest of the band at a Chelsea flat in the days prior to the show, where she grew adept at Centipede (see Computer Eighties) and won a large sum of money playing Uno with the bandmates. Gabriela enjoyed the show very much, despite the overwhelming crowd and the coffin-sized speakers that made her cover her ears against the noise. Of the other performers, she liked the moustached man in the sleeveless T-shirt and gold armband very much, as well as the thin man in the pale blue suit who dedicated his song to the children of the world and then sang about being a hero. Gabriela was exhausted by concert’s end, a cloud of white noise crackling in her head, but wanting to experience whatever she could, she went with Bono and the band to the after-party, where she drank orange juice and ate peanut M&Ms for the first time. At the end of the night, she fell asleep on Bono’s shoulder while he was carrying her to the taxi, just as she was about to ask if the energetic man with the moustache and armband had indeed ever found someone to love.