The Olympic flame will be carried from Athens to Ottawa by laser beam. It will take one-twentieth of a second. Overland from there, in a more conventional way, the torch will be brought to Montreal and, should there be an Olympics, the flame will be taken into the magnificent new stadium on this Saturday afternoon, July 17, 1976.
Unfortunately, as it becomes easier to transmit the Olympic flame, it becomes more difficult to carry its meaning. Such divisiveness, such selfishness, such rancor as marked the warmups for the 21st modern Olympiad last week began to make it seem almost academic whether or not the Games would be played—unless, of course, gold medals are given for self-righteousness, pettiness and grandstanding. Nor any longer is it sufficient just to smile and say, oh well, these little quibbles always pop up and are forgotten as soon as the athletes get to sweating—nations will be nations, heh, heh. These disputes are never truly healed, and they only leave deeper wounds in the Olympic spirit. Because of Munich, Montreal has become a suspicious stockade town; because of past political incursions, the Olympics have become a place where opportunists can make a total shambles out of what once stood for good fellowship and excellence. Canada has spent $100 million on security, only to find out that the terrorists are within.
At week's end there were two major confrontations. Canada announced that the Republic of China could not compete under that name because the Dominion only recognizes mainland China and, despairing, the Executive Board of the International Olympic Committee acquiesed. Tanzania declared that because a rugby team from New Zealand had competed in South Africa, it would not enter its team—including the world-record holder in the 1,500, Filbert Bayi—unless New Zealand quit the Games.
Other African nations indicated they might follow the Tanzanian example—as great a symbolic amputation to the Games as a whole as Bayi's absence to his glamour event. Moreover, his government has also prohibited Bayi from entering a series of post-Olympic races against his prime rival, John Walker of New Zealand, and other top milers who are scheduled for Philadelphia, Helsinki and Edinburgh. We were all looking forward to the Dream Mile, and now that is exactly what we have, a mile to dream about.
July 18, 1976
But the shocking IOC decision concerning Taiwan cuts deeper, to the very heart of the Olympic movement. It would be erroneous to think back on it as some passing squall, something vaguely contrived, like boxers going through publicity motions to build up a fight gate. It speaks directly to Olympic sovereignty—and all the louder because the next Games will be held in Moscow.
Technically, when Games are awarded by the IOC, they are only granted to the petitioning city, but the country is obliged to offer its support. Essentially, the IOC becomes an independent jurisdiction, a government in residence with control over its temporary constituency. The Canadian government, run by the Liberals, then as now, tacitly accepted this well-recognized understanding with letters to the IOC when the Games were awarded in 1970.
Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau wrote, "I...extend to all who are associated with the Olympic Games a cordial invitation to visit us in Montreal in 1976." His Secretary of State for External Affairs, Mitchell Sharp, wrote even more explicitly, "I would like to assure you that all parties representing the National Olympic Committees and International Sports Federations recognized by the IOC will be free to enter Canada pursuant to the normal regulations." Now, presumably, the last five words of legalistic curlicue are the loophole by means of which Trudeau legitimizes his position.
Lord Killanin, the president of the IOC, first learned of Canada's intent to deny the Republic of China its name and flag on May 28, but the issue was not squarely faced until last Friday, July 9, when several ROC team members were refused admission to Canada. Then all-day negotiations began in earnest at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal. Compromise proved elusive because each side argued a different rationale. Canada cited, well, politics—as in sports and politics don't mix. The Canadians proclaimed the rather obvious existence of Red China and its 825 million souls. The IOC and the Republic of China remained just as intransigent, claiming that Red China, which is not, of its own accord, an Olympic member, is not a factor in the issue. All that counts is that the ROC is a member of the IOC in good standing, and that Canada had given its guarantee to accept every such party.
Virtually all outside support flowed to the IOC and Taiwan. For example, even the International Rowing Federation, which counts mainland China (and not island China) as a member, sided with the Olympians. The Canadian Olympic Association also argued against its own country and in the bargain even offered an analogy between Trudeau and Hitler. Canadians, who have suffered large amounts of bad publicity over their handling of the Games (could they even build that stadium on time?), have become particularly sensitive about how their government's arbitrary position will make them appear in the eyes of the world. When John Diefenbaker, the former Conservative prime minister, toured the Olympic site last week, he mournfully said that he feared Canada would become known "as a country which broke its word."
So recently a much-admired nation, sympathized with for having to lie in the awful shadow of the awful U.S., Canada's language shenanigans are now making it an international figure of fun. Just as it tries to gloss over its French-English disputes with a literal doublespeak—style instead of substance—so is the Taiwan matter so much semantic embroidery. Imagine all this fuss over a name. Besides, after so many years of moaning that it won't be dominated by the U.S., it is strange, to say the least, that Trudeau would put his country in a position where it appears to be nothing more than a running dog lackey for Peking.
It is all of a piece, anyway; so far the Olympics have succeeded mostly in disillusioning Canada and driving it apart. For the first time now, the English-speaking are beginning to say out loud that maybe everybody would be better off if Quebec just took a walk. Those from outside La Belle Province are especially unhappy about having their tax money go to pay for the greater glory of Montreal and Quebec. Originally, the Games were budgeted to break even at a cost of $310 million. But there was a slight miscalculation of about 500%, and everybody is going to have to dig deep to pay off losses on what has become a $1.5 billion boondoggle. Souvenir salesmen have even had a hard time peddling Olympic trinkets to their out-of-province countrymen, and under pressure of the Olympics, the unions and the languages have made unbecoming noises. Air controllers want French spoken at all Quebec airports, and ethnic-related tensions are involved in a potential TV technicians' strike that could, if it takes place, black out television coverage of the Games.
The opposition party, the Conservatives, have leapt on the Taiwan issue. In Parliament one day last week, Diefenbaker and his successor as party leader, Joe Clark, took on Trudeau. "The world has moved on since the right honorable member was prime minister," Trudeau retorted archly.
Across the floor, Clark shouted back. "Yes, it has. In his day commitments were honored."
But the government remained unyielding. After a full day of sessions on Saturday, Assistant Undersecretary of External Affairs, André Bissonette, announced, "We are not prepared to allow the public proclamation in Canada of anyone under the name of the Republic of China."
On Sunday, with a heavy heart, the 61-year-old Killanin announced that the IOC had capitulated to Canada. He said that the decision to go on with the Games was made in the interest of athletes from all over the world who had been preparing for the Olympics, in some cases for years. Accusing the Canadian government of a breach of faith, he thundered, "The whole world is absolutely fed up with politicians interfering with sport."
In an attempt at a compromise, the IOC made a last-minute suggestion that the Taiwanese march in the opening ceremony with a plaque bearing the letters IOC instead of their national flag. Taiwan refused. "We will not give up our principle," a team spokesman said.
The Taiwanese have endured a number of reversals in the past few years, suffering the enmity of everybody from the United Nations to the Little League, but they have just gone on about their business. This time, though, they have a lot of friends. "Of all the raw deals we've had, this one tops them all," said Thomas Hsueh (pronounced Shea).
He is the captain of the ROC yachting team, and as he spoke he was sitting, in of all places, the Olympic Village, in the appointed office of the Republic of China; a sign on the door so designated it. Hsueh's credentials list him as from the Republic of China. All official material makes similar references to just such a place. Private citizens call him up on the phone and apologize for their government; athletes stop him to commiserate.
Hsueh and a handful of other team members carry dual passports (Hsueh went to the University of Colorado and lived for many years in the States), and they had come quietly into the Dominion before all the hell broke loose. On Friday the bulk of the team was stopped by Canadian orders in the U.S., and the athletes were scattered about, awaiting word. The largest contingent found its way to Boston, where, coals to Newcastle, they were provided with a tour of Chinatown.
In the face of the China crisis, the IOC would not even bother to discuss the African demi-crisis when it boiled over late last Friday. It came as something of a surprise, since the New Zealand matter had been broached a few days earlier in Mauritius at the annual summit meeting of the Organization of African Unity, there eliciting only the rather mild opinion that the 48 member states might "consider" boycotting the Games.
It was Tanzania that forced the issue, finally deciding to act alone, specifically protesting the presence in South Africa of the New Zealand All Blacks as "open approval by New Zealand of the murderous acts" of the recent Soweto riots in which 176 died. The statement concluded: "To exclude from the Games countries which fraternize with South Africa is the greatest contribution mankind can make in reaching a peaceful solution in South Africa."
It took another day before Nigeria, the largest and most powerful black African nation, suggested that other African countries would probably fall in line. (At week's end, only Mauritius had done so.) Certainly, there was no chance that New Zealand would pull out on its own. Bill Holley, the New Zealand chief of mission, pointed out that in his country athletic federations have no connection with the government, nor with one another. To put this in perspective, the All Blacks rugby team is simply an independent enterprise equivalent to, say, the World Championship of Tennis, which is incorporated and located in Dallas and which annually sends a number of its contracted players to compete in a WCT tournament in Johannesburg. Will Tanzania and other African nations now be consistent and boycott all U.S. teams because Arthur Ashe competes in South Africa?
Rather poignantly, the remarks of New Zealand's Holley and those of Filbert Bayi were of a kind. Said Holley, "I think Tanzania and the other African nations have failed to consider the athletes, like Bayi, who have trained so hard for years for these Games."
In Dar es Salaam, Bayi, obviously distressed, said, "Four years of training have gone for nothing." Then, circumspect, he added quickly, "But the government had to do what it did."
The other athletes were disappointed, to be sure, but they went about their training, secure in their youth that foolish old men would not keep them all from competing. Often as not, the talk was less of global issues and more of their creature comforts.
The Montreal Olympic Village, which is really the Olympic High Rise—19 stories of neo-Nebuchadnezzar—is conveniently located only a couple of blocks from the stadium complex, but it hardly provides the luxury accommodations of Munich. Toilets promise to be a constant topic of conversation, which toilets always are only when there are not enough of them. There are not enough. One apartment, jammed with a dozen American girls, has only one bathroom—one toilet, one washbasin, one shower/tub. There was general speculation that this crowding might benefit the athletes of the poorer countries, who are not so accustomed to such luxuries as private plumbing.
But the quarters are certainly not unagreeable. For the first time, they are air conditioned, each apartment has a color TV set, and each competitor his own locked trunk. Not surprisingly for such a gourmet city as the Paris of North America, the Olympians' food—especially the salmon—has been praised extravagantly. Let's keep politics out of food.
It would have been easy for the U.S. to bivouac its team just over the border in Plattsburg and run in the competitors like relief pitchers from the bullpen, but the American officials felt it unfair to deny our athletes the rare Olympic experience. Alas, the High Rise appears about as international as a spring weekend at Iowa State. The competitors are almost indistinguishable, dressing virtually exclusively in track suits, jeans and bathing suits.
All these handsome young people look and act so much alike that local Canadian ethnic groups, in the quaint native dress of their forefathers, must be brought to the Olympic High Rise to international the place up. The other day, when a Hungarian dance troupe was trucked in from the suburbs, Japanese photographers were tripping all over the real international athletes in their universal attire to take pictures of the Quebec ringers.
But overlaying the High Rise, the playing venues and downtown is the social smog known euphemistically as "supervision." Security. Or, let us be honest: the 21st modern Olympiad, Operation Alpha to the Mounties, is a little police state. There are many more soldiers and cops—16,000—than athletes, and while London sprang for less than $5,000 in security costs in 1908, the price tag here for keeping the athletes alive will exceed $100 million.
If it costs so much for the world to safely amuse itself with "Games," can it possibly be worth it? In Bromont, 45 miles from Montreal, where most of the equestrian events will be held, the townspeople, some of whom refer to themselves as "prisoners," must wear photo ID cards about their necks in order to gain the privilege of walking down their own streets. One Olympic official, delivering an urgent message to the Argentinian team there, was accosted for parking in an unauthorized spot, and because he was unable to explain himself in French was beaten and had his arms roughly twisted by the police who accosted him. The sympathetic response from a police spokesman was that the gentleman was lucky that the incident did not happen during the Games, as then "he could have been shot."
In Montreal, at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, where the bigwigs are sequestered, luggage is searched, and all visitors must enter through metal detectors; sometimes they are frisked as well. Sentries toting semi-automatic weapons abound at important sites, and here and there guard dogs prowl, sniffing for explosives. Montreal is an armed camp; Canada is split at home, insulted abroad. The Olympics are making it possible for countries around the world to talk of hate, and to work out four years of aggressions. Said New Zealand's Bill Holley, "I think one thing is certain: we are no longer competing to make friends."
At least one man still puts on a happy face: Mayor Jean Drapeau, the bold little dreamer who brought the Games to Montreal as the ultimate tribute to his beloved city. The mayor still talks about Baron Pierre de Coubertin and his original Olympic ideals. "The Olympic flame will be kept burning in Montreal," Drapeau says, his eyes twinkling, as the sunlight streams into his office salon. "The Olympics don't close on Aug. 1. Oh, the competition does, but I did not dedicate 13 years of my life to two weeks of competition. The spirit of the Olympics will stay with us, stay with Montreal, stay with Quebec, stay with Canada."
God help them all if it does.