For more than two weeks the President of the United States had restrained himself, hoping in vain for some sign that the Soviet Union would heed the warning he had delivered in his Jan. 4 television speech. On that occasion, Jimmy Carter said that unless the U.S.S.R. discontinued its "aggressive actions" in Afghanistan, the U.S. might withdraw from the Summer Olympics in Moscow. Last week, with Soviet troops still very much in Afghanistan, the President decided it was time for a flat-out ultimatum: if those forces are not off Afghan territory by Feb. 20, the U.S. would not compete in Moscow.
This is an article from the Jan. 28, 1980 issue
Carter outlined this position Sunday on NBC-TV's Meet the Press and in a four-page letter to the United States Olympic Committee, of which he is the honorary president. He asked USOC officials to convey to the International Olympic Committee his conviction that unless the Kremlin meets his deadline, the Summer Games should be moved to another site or sites, postponed or canceled. The IOC is on record as opposing all three of those options, but the President was counting on the support of enough other countries to change the IOC's mind or, failing that, to stage a reasonably broad-based "alternate" Olympics. On television, Carter said that if the Soviet Union ignored his ultimatum, he hoped "as many nations as possible" would support scrapping the Moscow Games and that, moreover, he would personally prefer that future Olympics be held at a permanent site—in the case of the Summer Games, in Greece, their original home. But Carter also said pointedly, "Regardless of what other nations might do, I would not favor the sending of an American Olympic team to Moscow while the Soviet invasion troops are in Afghanistan."
During his TV appearance, the President also noted that the American people were squarely in favor of a boycott of the Moscow Games, which certainly appeared to be true—and which no doubt influenced the timing of his decision. When Carter first raised the possibility on Jan. 4, there seemed to be plenty of time to carry out a boycott. Indeed, a threat to do so at the last possible moment—the Summer Games don't begin until July 19—would have been ideal for making the Soviets squirm. Since then, though, the idea of a boycott has won overwhelming support from editorial writers and the public, not to mention a goodly number of Congressmen who plan to introduce resolutions urging that the Olympics be moved. Given this ground swell, Carter may have felt he had little choice but to act, especially in light of election-year questions about his—and the country's—will to resist Soviet expansionism.
There also was a growing feeling at the White House that barring a sudden Soviet de-escalation in Afghanistan, steering clear of the Moscow Games is simply the right thing to do. In the Administration's view, the prospect of the U.S. competing in Moscow while Soviet troops are occupying Afghanistan evokes a specter of American participation in the 1936 Berlin Olympics that Hitler used to glorify Nazism. Another factor behind the President's ultimatum was the obvious importance of the Games to Moscow. Most countries playing host to the Olympics in modern times have used them to promote themselves, but none have gone about it with quite the zeal of the Soviets, who have spent grand sums of money to preen for the Games and have somewhat nervously prepared to welcome an unprecedented influx of foreigners. Kremlinologists theorize that the Soviet leaders expect the Games to confer upon them long-sought legitimacy and that an effective boycott would foil that expectation as well as sow unease among their citizenry. Carter reflected this view in his letter to the USOC, saying that a cancellation of the Moscow Games would constitute a "powerful signal of world outrage [that] cannot be hidden from the Soviet people, and will reverberate around the globe." The President added, "Perhaps it will deter future aggression."
The scenario seemingly envisioned by the White House would include a mass exodus from the 1980 Olympics by so many countries that the IOC would be forced to scuttle the Games. Although IOC Director Monique Berlioux said last week that "those who believe there will be no Moscow Games are the victims of wishful thinking," another Olympic insider gloomily conceded that if the U.S.S.R. takes military action in Yugoslavia, the Games might indeed have to be canceled or postponed, two of Carter's alternatives. Given the mind-boggling logistics involved, the President's third option, that the Olympics be moved to a new site, is less promising, but the Administration has made it known it is prepared to spend as much as $500 million to subsidize relocated Games. If the IOC declined to go along, the President would be willing to underwrite a counter-Olympics, leaving the real Games, to the U.S.S.R.'s everlasting humiliation, largely to Communist-bloc countries.
Carter obviously hopes the Olympics would somehow survive all this and be, well, born again. One undercurrent in the U.S. public clamor for a boycott is that even before the events in Afghanistan the Olympics had become over-politicized, which they certainly had. Still, the resulting argument that they therefore be junked is a convenient one; it was advanced far less loudly and eloquently in this country, for example, when black Africans boycotted the Olympics in 1976 over a cause important to their interests. For all their flaws, the Games are worth preserving, which Carter acknowledged in suggesting, with no apologies to the organizers of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, that Greece would be an "appropriate" permanent site. Although there are drawbacks to that suggestion—for one thing, Greece has not always been the most politically stable country—it would be a happy ending indeed if the crisis over the '80 Olympics wound up producing such meaningful Olympic reforms as the elimination of nationalist pomp and the novelty of having athletes compete as individuals rather than as members of national teams.
The scenario is far bleaker, however, if the U.S. rallies little support abroad for a boycott. The '80 Games would lose considerable luster if the U.S. were absent, but the Soviets would inevitably try to persuade their citizens that the Americans stayed home because they were afraid of being wiped out on the playing fields. A unilateral U.S. boycott, frets four-time Olympic discus champion Al Oerter, would be "like sticking your tongue out at somebody." Indeed, there is a danger that an inability to rouse international support for a boycott could wind up making the U.S. appear ineffectual.
Which raises the critical question: What will other governments and Olympic committees do? So far the only countries to announce that they plan to boycott are Saudi Arabia and the neighboring states of Qatar and Djibouti, which scarcely amounts to a mass movement. Israel and Egypt have said they would favor relocation of the Games, and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Canadian Prime Minister Joe Clark have strongly expressed the same opinion. Public reaction in much of Western Europe to a boycott has been lukewarm, but Administration officials imply that many countries would follow the U.S. lead. Lloyd Cutler, the President's counsel, said last week, "Do not infer from what you read that we'll be doing anything alone."
There is also some question about what U.S. Olympic officials and athletes might do. The USOC brass declined to commit themselves on the President's ultimatum, saying only that his "recommendations" would undoubtedly be considered when the USOC's 82-member executive board meets at the organization's headquarters this weekend in Colorado Springs; they also indicated that they might poll prospective Olympians for their views. Although that seemed to imply that the USOC might defy its honorary president, the prospect of this happening is unlikely. "If Carter tells us it's in the national interest for us to stay home from Moscow, that's going to have quite an impact," conceded Robert Kane, the USOC's real president. Gymnastics standout Kurt Thomas said with resignation, "If the President says we're not going to go, I guess we don't." A number of leading track and field performers reluctantly echoed that sentiment (page 48).
There is a certain melancholy in all this. It has been clear all along that if the U.S.S.R. did not withdraw from Afghanistan, the U.S. might eventually have to rule out competing in Moscow come July. It is also clear that the rising tide of sentiment among the American public in favor of a boycott has hastened the making of decisions before it might otherwise have been necessary. And certainly it would have been preferable if Carter could have somehow marshaled the widespread support of other countries before he delivered his ultimatum. It is to be hoped that the ultimatum now will bring about international backing. That is most likely to happen if Americans, including athletes and Olympic officials, rally around the President. If his challenge to the Moscow Games gains broad support within the next month, the Soviets conceivably still could get the message and deescalate in Afghanistan. If not, only time will tell whether the Olympics can be postponed or moved, as the President suggests. If all else fails and the U.S. has to settle for alternate Olympics or none at all, SI believes the President has taken the right course. His action will have at least some of the desired psychological impact on the U.S.S.R.
It may or may not be an accident that the Feb. 20 deadline falls during the 13-day Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. In his letter to the USOC, Carter said he wanted the Winter Games to go on, presumably with Soviet athletes on hand. As things now stand, the President is scheduled to officially welcome those athletes when the Games open on Feb. 13. The prospect of Soviet leaders having the pleasure of returning the compliment in Moscow on July 19 seems remote indeed.