Some of the pomp was dampened by politics, but the XXI Olympiad opened last Saturday in Montreal. For more than a year there had been doubts that the Games would take place. But on a gloriously beautiful afternoon, with England's Queen Elizabeth presiding, speaking first in French, then in English, the Olympics began. The torch was carried into the stadium by a boy with the haunting name of Stephane Prefontaine, accompanied by a girl, Sandra Henderson, who shared the symbolic task by holding his wrist lightly as they ran. There was music and dancing and speeches and the traditional parade of participating nations. That part didn't take nearly as long as it should have; more than a score of nations were absent.
Taiwan was not in the stadium, of course. Nobody was surprised at that. The Canadian government had sugar-coated the bitter pill of its Olympics ban with last-minute concessions and the U.S. had applauded the move. But the athletes and officials of the Republic of China had spurned the bottom-line offer to operate as Nation X and had packed their principles and departed.
In quick order the Taiwanese were joined by 24 nations, the majority of them African, all electing to boycott the Games for another political reason. Their wrath was aimed at New Zealand but their real target was South Africa. Thus, the rainbow march of athletes seemed only slightly longer than the lineup of those missing. Not that the African exodus from Montreal's $1.5 billion playground was any less expected than that of Taiwan—the African nations have been poised for just such a move ever since New Zealand sent a rugby team to play in South Africa following the recent Soweto riots in which an estimated 176 persons died.
Lee Evans, twice a U.S. Olympian and now the sprint coach for the Nigerian track team, had seen it coming. "I knew the heavy stuff would come down at the Olympics," he said. "I was just waiting for it to happen. I'm glad we are making a stand, even though I'd like to see how my guys would have done. The Olympics aren't so big that we can't give them up. We feel that a sacrifice must be made."
July 25, 1976
The African nations had played a patient hand. Their opening move came two weeks ago, after the annual summit conference of the Organization of African Unity, when Tanzania announced that it was not sending its team—1,500-meter world-record holder Filbert Bayi and friends—to Montreal. A day later Nigeria, largest and politically one of the strongest of the black African nations, said other countries would probably take the same stand. After that the Africans sat back to wait as the Taiwan issue dominated the headlines.
The Taiwanese had played this game before. They had been forced to parade under the name of Formosa in Rome in 1960 but had been allowed a banner of protest. Four years later in Tokyo they marched as Taiwan. Still, their Olympic face had been saved when their Japanese hosts permitted them to print, in small Japanese characters, the name "Republic of China" under the larger one of Taiwan on the parade placard. But now, when the IOC and a suddenly tough U.S. delegation tried to force Canada into a similar compromise, the move was rebuffed. "We don't want another compromise," warned Victor Yuen, secretary of the Taiwan delegation. "Either we are the Republic of China or we go home."
By last Thursday, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau had relented enough to allow the Taiwanese to use their flag. And if they won a gold medal, he agreed, they could play their anthem. But they still could not participate under the forbidden name. "They can play whatever tune they want and they can wave whatever flag they want," he said, "but they can't use a name that isn't theirs."
A relieved Lord Killanin, president of the IOC, felt that Canada had made important concessions. "Good show," he said. Philip Krumm, head of the U.S. delegation, at first said, "We feel that our loyalty to the Republic of China and our pledge to it has been fulfilled even with this restriction. We took a tough stand—without those concessions from Canada we could have gone home." Later he said, "It is astounding that the Taiwanese turned it down."
That night 15 of the black African countries signed a pledge reserving the right to leave the Games unless New Zealand was sent packing. The major sporting nations were Kenya, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Uganda. The others were Chad, Ghana, Upper Volta, Ivory Coast, Togo, Mali, Morocco, Senegal, Niger, Zambia and the Congo. They gave the IOC until 4 p.m. Friday to render a decision, but they were not optimistic. Even before their letter was carried to Lord Killanin, Nigeria had a charter plane on its way to Montreal.
The New Zealanders professed to be stunned by the African onslaught. Rugby isn't an Olympic sport. "But I can't blame the Africans," said Dick Quax, who recently ran the 5,000 in 13:13.2, only .2 off the world record. "I mean, knowing how they feel about the South Africans. I blame the rugby people and I blame our government for putting us in this position. If our government says sports and politics don't mix, they ought to come here."
Returning to the Village from a nearby training track with teammate John Walker, Rod Dixon, one of the favorites in the 5,000, wondered where it would all end. "I have no advice for our government except to resign," he said bitterly. "The blacks that we know here in the Village have been really good. We get together and say, 'What's going to happen with our bloody countries?' " Walker, already deeply disappointed by the absence of his rival Bayi, shrugged. "My strongest feeling is that the whole system is screwed. Quote me."
Friday at 8 a.m., eight hours before the proposed deadline, Isaac Akioye, a Nigerian official, walked into Room U-247 on the first floor of D Building in the Olympic Village and began shaking Lee Evans' shoulder. "Wake up, Lee," he ordered. "Start packing. We're going home today. We are going to show them they cannot push around black Africans." Evans got up and began putting his things into a black steamer trunk. He addressed it to Lee Evans, c/o Mr. Akioye, Institute of Physical Education, University of Ife, Ile-Ife, Nigeria. Akioye moved about the floor, systematically waking up athletes, telling them to pack. No one said much.
Late that afternoon Jane Frederick, the U.S. pentathlete, met Modupe Oshikoya, a Nigerian girl who was entered in the hurdles, the long jump and the pentathlon. "We got a message today," Oshikoya told the American. "We have to go home."
"How do you feel about it?" Frederick asked.
"Very difficult," sighed Oshikoya. "All that hard work. I came to compete."
In the Nigerian quarters the athletes dressed in their green-and-white parade uniforms for the trip home. Some were laughing. Others posed for last-minute pictures. Long jumper Charlton Ehizuelen, a 22-year-old student at the University of Illinois, paced the area nervously. "I don't like it," he said. "I have done really good. I won the NCAAs last year. I've done 27'4". I had a good chance at winning a medal." Nearby, in Building C, the Kenyans gathered following an afternoon workout. No one had told them they were leaving. Except for a few individuals—Tanzania's Bayi, Uganda's 1972 Olympic intermediate hurdle champion and world-record holder, John Akii-Bua, Ethiopia's marvelous distance runner, Miruts Yifter—Kenya's athletes had carried the best hope for medals in the African bloc.
Joshua Kimeto, one of the Kenyan 5,000-meter runners, said, "We haven't heard from our government, but if our chief says go home, we go home. But we'd like to compete."
Saturday afternoon, after an orchestra had played O, Canada, the parade of nations began. First out, by tradition, were the Greeks, marching proudly in dark blue blazers. Scheduled next, Algeria was a no show. The long count had begun.
One African nation expected to leave was the Ivory Coast; surprisingly, its athletes marched, but a team official said they had only entered the opening ceremonies out of respect for Canada and that they would depart with the others. Slowly the census of defectors mounted. At last count, 25 nations, including Taiwan and Tanzania, had pulled out; 90' were still in the Olympics.
As the Games began, more were expected to go, some of them from the Caribbean, where Michael Manley, the iron-fisted premier of troubled Jamaica, plays an important role. A strong Third World advocate, Manley has strong ties with Socialist Tanzania. But Jamaican sprinter Don Quarrie, one of the strong favorites in both the 100 and the 200 meters, said, "If they want me out they are going to have to pull me. And I mean literally."
If African athletes nurtured similar feelings, few were willing to voice them. "The government sent me here and the government can call me home," said Akii-Bua. "I would not care to make history."
Much of the controversy stirred by these Games will, of course, continue to exacerbate international athletic relations; already it has created speculation over host Russia's intentions for the 1980 Olympics. But at the same time, and paradoxically, what emerges from all the argument might well be a strengthening both of the Olympic spirit and sporting goodwill among nations—if the issues can be settled amicably.
In any event, the Montreal Games were officially under way. And because the countries that had defected could boast only a few potential gold medal winners, the spirit of the Olympics had been violated much more than the competition. "I've got faith," said Dwight Stones, the ebullient U.S. high-jump favorite. "I know that soon some power will come down and transport all the athletes to the real Olympics."
Stones was not alone in his faith. Off came the parade uniforms—which in the case of the dowdy U.S. team was a blessing—and on went a flurry of Sunday action that was assuredly real.
In Montreal's Etienne Desmarteau Centre, the U.S. basketball team ran down Italy 106-86, displaying more strength up the middle than expected, mixed with what Coach Dean Smith of North Carolina called "enthusiasm and poise." For Center Mitch Kupchak, who scored 19 points, it was a vindication—critics had considered him a consolation choice since several celebrated big men had not sought the job. "Those remarks were directed at me," he said. "But I'm a competitor and I've got a lot of pride." The mission, said Forward Scott May of Indiana (16 points), "is to get better every time we play."
Across town at the Olympic Pool, the mission for U.S. swimmers was more grim—not to get better, but to start out at their best and hold the pace against East Germany. And the first major encounters gave ample indication of how spirited that competition was to be. Pulling off his woolen stocking cap Sunday afternoon, USC's John Naber plunged into the water and churned to a world-record 56.19 in his 100-meter backstroke semifinal, trimming .11 off the mark held by archrival Roland Matthes of East Germany. But that was for openers. Not long after the shouting died down, the U.S. swept up its first medals. Not merely a gold, but gold, silver and bronze in a world record finish in the 200 butterfly—a 1:59.23 for slick-shaved Mike Bruner, from Stockton, Calif., who was followed closely by Steve Gregg and Bill Forrester.
Then the East German women retaliated with a golden performance of their own in the 400-meter medley relay. The combination of Ulrike Richter, Hannelore Anke, Andrea Pollack and star Kornelia Ender teamed to set a world-record 4:07.95, taking 5.46 off the mark, trailed to the finish by Shirley Babashoff and U.S. company with a 4:14.55.
These were, indeed, the real games, in which the world's best athletes had set about the business of racing, swimming and outmuscling each other. So the brushfires were out and only the Olympic flame burned. Somehow, it seemed most appropriate that it had been lit by two teen-age Canadians, running alone without fancy escort. They were dressed simply in white—so beautifully stark. It even seemed for a moment that innocence might have come back at just the right moment.