FACING BEAR FACTS

In tense meetings at Colorado Springs the U.S. athletic community reluctantly lined up to pass up the Olympic Games in the Soviet Union
February 04, 1980

The unspeakable word in stormy, snowbound Colorado Springs last weekend was not "blizzard" but "boycott." The very mention of it before convening members of the U.S. Olympic Committee's executive board and their hard-sell petitioners from the White House elicited responses as chilly as the sub-freezing temperatures. But the unsavory word did pop up from time to time.

Lloyd Cutler, counsel to President Carter, heard it just after he completed two and a half hours of "brisk, give-and-take discussions" with the USOC board members Saturday morning at the Broadmoor Hotel. Cutler was shocked by such language. "The President's request," he explained huffily, "is that if Soviet troops remain in Afghanistan, the United States Olympic Committee propose to the International Olympic Committee that the Olympic Games be transferred from Moscow or canceled or postponed. Failing such effort, he requests that no U.S. team attend the Games this summer."

This final option appeared nowhere in the resolution the executive board adopted that evening by unanimous vote of the 68 attending members. It resolved that the USOC would indeed ask the IOC to move the Olympic Games out of the Soviet Union or cancel or postpone them, but if the IOC should reject that proposal, the board only said that "appropriate action" would be considered. In the meantime, the USOC "shall continue to select and prepare the United States Olympic team...."

Boycott? No way. USOC President Robert J. Kane said the board was merely "buying time" with its resolution. Unless prodded further by Carter, it has until May 24, eight weeks before the Games begin, to send word of its entry to Moscow, according to IOC rules. Not entering, Kane reminded questioners, is hardly the same as boycotting something or somebody, even though the effect is the same: you're not around.

The President's men seemed satisfied with the result. "The USOC has taken a very important step," said deputy presidential counsel Joseph Onek after the vote. "It is the first step in signaling to the Russians that their aggression in Afghanistan will not go unanswered. This is precisely what the President requested." According to Onek, there was no need to take the final step of boyco...er...withdrawing from the Games until later. The President does not expect either the IOC or the USOC to take action before February 20, the deadline he has set for the U.S.S.R. to clear its troops out of Afghanistan.

But, in fact, the USOC must soon meet the concept of boycott head-on, for there seems as little chance of the IOC accepting any part of the Colorado Springs resolution as there is of U.S.S.R. troops moving out of Afghanistan by the President's deadline. Lord Killanin, the Irish peer who is president of the IOC, insists, "There is no question of the Games being moved to another venue." They have been awarded to Moscow, he asserts, and it would be logistically impossible to take them anywhere else. "This does not mean," he quickly appends, "that I or the IOC are condoning the political action of the host country, but if we started to make political judgments, it would be the end of the Games."

President Carter's decision, in Killanin's view, was "hasty." As for postponement, Rule 54 of the IOC Charter requires the Games to be held during "the last year of the Olympiad which they are to celebrate"—1980 for the XXII Olympiad. "In no circumstances," states the Charter, "may they be postponed for another year." The options come down to a single word for the USOC.

White House and State Department officials reject Killanin's notion that moving the Games is a logistical impossibility. "It seems almost beyond belief that, given the entrepreneurship of the Western world, a major sports event cannot be organized in six months," says Nelson Ledsky, who heads the State Department's Olympic Task Force.

With its action last weekend, the USOC itself may be considered a malefactor in some Olympic circles, because in apparently knuckling under to its own government it could be charged with breaking the IOC's Rule 24c, which states, "National Olympic Committees must be autonomous and must resist all pressure of any kind whatsoever, whether of a political, religious or economic nature." The suggestion that this rule might be enforced against the USOC turns Cutler and Onek apoplectic.

"It's inconceivable that the Olympic Committee of the Soviet Union could be autonomous and free of political influence," said the ordinarily unflappable Cutler last Saturday. "Indeed, its members are high officials of the Soviet government." The vote supporting the President "does not mean the USOC is not autonomous," added Onek. "The President has also asked many Americans to conserve energy. Are they any less autonomous for complying?"

Whatever the consequences of the U.S. action—and one might be to endanger the 1984 Games scheduled for Los Angeles—both White House and State Department staffers seemed determined last week to pursue a course that their interpretation of the public response tells them is the right one. On Thursday the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly—386 to 12—in favor of the President's Olympic policy, and the Senate is expected to take a similar action soon. Newspaper editorials and public-opinion polls have been running strongly in favor of what people insist on calling "the boycott."

The President is doing less well abroad, although British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher quickly joined his side. In a letter to Sir Dennis Follows, chairman of the British Olympic Association, she called for a transfer of the Games, writing, "We believe that, with cooperation between like-minded countries, it should be possible to hold the Games in one or, if necessary, more than one other place [besides Moscow].... In an ideal world, I would share entirely the philosophy of the Olympic Movement that sport should be divorced from politics. Sadly, however, this is no longer a realistic view. For the Soviet Union, the Olympic Games are a major political event which will be used to boost Soviet prestige in the world."

Cutler says he's much encouraged by support from abroad. He claims that the President has received favorable, or at least sympathetic, reactions from as many as 30 foreign governments, including many in the Moslem world. But national governments can only request action of their Olympic committees, albeit with some muscle. The committees themselves have the final responsibility for determining participation or withdrawal. For instance, while Canadian Prime Minister Joe Clark pledged immediate support for Carter's policy, the Canadian Olympic Association hedged. It issued a release that said in part, "The Canadian Olympic Association does not agree that participation in Olympic Games in Moscow represents an endorsement of the government of the Soviet Union or any of its activities."

Most of the national Olympic committees, like the USOC, were buying time. The French were an exception, accepting the Soviet invitation the day after it was received, despite the impassioned plea of a Soviet dissident, Vasily Kuznetsov, who lives in France. "Claiming that sports and politics can be divided is missing the point," he thundered. "In our world everything is politics, and the Olympics are grand politics."

Much of Western Europe was quite obviously squirming under the ever-increasing pressure to declare support or nonsupport. In Holland, chess grand master Viktor Korchnoi, who defected from the U.S.S.R. in 1976, urged a boycott, saying, "We do not talk about affecting the Soviet Union. We talk about compromising the politics of the Soviet government in the eyes of the Soviet people."

West Germany, like many of its neighbors, waffled. But as the politicians hemmed and hawed, requests for tickets to the Games soared. Apparently, sports buffs were reapplying in hopes of getting returns from those canceling out.

Some European nations suggested alternatives to President Carter's intransigent position. Luxembourg Prime Minister Gaston Thorn proposed as "the only realistic compromise solution" that the Western nations send "second-rate" athletes to Moscow. Emanuel Rose, the secretary general of Denmark's Olympic Committee, suggested that Danish athletes decide for themselves whether or not to compete but recommended that those going to Moscow not take part in the opening or closing ceremonies. The president of the Belgian Olympic Committee, Raoul Mollet, opposed President Carter's position saying, "Someone always has a reason for boycotting an event in which those who do not share his ideas are participating," but he added, "We will quite understand if for personal reasons a leader or an athlete refuses to go."

The governments of Australia and New Zealand quickly lined up behind the President. Asian countries were taking a wait-and-see approach, but they, too, seemed likely to follow the American lead. Another U.S. ally in this matter apparently will be the People's Republic of China, which, after a long fight to gain admittance to the Olympics, is now preparing for its first Games since 1952. Nevertheless, a spokesman for China's National Sports Commission has told newsmen that "the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan does not accord with the Olympic spirit." An American boycott or insistence on moving the Games to another site would probably place irresistible pressure on the undecided Japanese to follow suit.

Cutler is confident of a steady growth of anti-Soviet sentiment. No modern Olympic Games have been wholly free of politics since 1936, when Hitler used them as a showcase for Nazism, just as, Cutler says, the Russians will use the 1980 Games to advertise themselves. In Colorado Springs, Cutler told newsmen that becoming the Olympics' first Communist host "may be the most important single event in the Soviet Union since World War II.... We intend to deny them what was going to be an enormous propaganda victory."

The Soviet Union was an aggressor in at least two other Olympic years—in 1956 against Hungary and in 1968 against Czechoslovakia—and yet no U.S. boycotts were proposed. "This is different," Cutler insists, because this time the U.S.S.R. is the host. "And, in principle, we ought not to be in the capital of the aggressor at the very moment the aggression is going on."

Ledsky pulls no punches in saying that the Administration's course is a punitive one. "We want to make the Soviets pay the price, show them there are costs involved," he says. "There is something repellent about Soviet troops being in Afghanistan at the same time flights of doves are being let loose in Moscow."

Sandra Gust, a foreign-service officer on the State Department's Soviet Desk, points up the Soviet's vulnerability to intimidation through sports. "Russia is a very sports-conscious country," she says. "The Russians seek a kind of respectability in international competition. Their triumphs are widely publicized. They like to think of themselves as being in a sort of friendly competition with the Americans. Soviet society would certainly ask where the Americans were. They couldn't fail to notice that something was wrong. It [a boycott] is a way of bringing home to the Soviet people that what their government does affects every aspect of their relations with us, including sports. In many ways, it is the strongest action we can take in getting our message through."

Yet, some old Kremlin hands see the public response to the President's Olympic policy as senseless jingoism. The Soviets, said one veteran diplomat, will turn the boycott against us. "They will portray it as a blow against people-to-people contact. They will do their best to show that this is just another example of the odd workings of the West. A boycott would hurt them, but they would find redeeming aspects."

The absence of a U.S. team in the Olympics would, in current Washington parlance, "cost" the Soviets, but it would also cost a number of Americans a pretty ruble. The National Broadcasting Company, which invested $87 million for the privilege of televising the Games, can recoup most of its initial investment through insurance, but the cost in lost advertising revenue could be heavy. And then there is Stanford Blum, a Los Angeles businessman. His company, Image Factory Sports Incorporated, holds the U.S. rights to market products bearing the various symbols of the Moscow Olympics, including the mascot Misha. Says a glum Blum, "As of now, Misha the bear is dead. Nobody wants to have the stigma of Russia attached to them."

But the biggest losers of all will be the athletes, many of whom have been training for years, at considerable financial sacrifice, for the chance at an Olympic medal. Yet, few Americans share the philosophy of a French Olympian in judo, Jean-Luc Rougè, who in speaking of his fellow Olympians has said, "France is not a country to us, it is a team. Moscow isn't a city, it's a stadium. The Marseillaise is really just a song—we could compete under any tune. The important thing for us is just to play."

Around the world, athletes generally decried the possibility of a boycott. "I think governments and politicians should keep their noses out of the Olympics," said John Walker of New Zealand, the gold medalist in the 1,500 in Montreal. "In 1976, when South Africans were not permitted to compete, the only real victims were athletes in general—not South Africa." Swedish fencer Rolf Edling, also a Montreal gold medalist, said, "Sport should be the last contact to be broken between countries, not the first."

Moreover, it was clear that the Americans would be missed. In Italy, Pietro Mennea, the world-record holder in the 200-meter dash, bemoaned the possible pullout by the U.S. "I have been looking forward to the Moscow Olympics for years," he said, "ever since I failed to win a medal in Montreal. The Games should be the highlight of my career. I want to win a gold in the 200 and then retire. But I want to win a real gold. An Olympic final without the Americans would be worth nothing."

But there were athletes who viewed some sort of action as necessary. "I go along with the boycott," said New Zealand's Dick Quax, a veteran of two previous Olympics and a candidate for both the 10,000 and the marathon in Moscow. "It seems crazy to me that New Zealand's sending a rugby team to South Africa caused an African boycott of the Montreal Olympics and that Russia's sending an army into Afghanistan doesn't seem to disturb some people."

It certainly disturbs Carter, whose Olympic policy is only part of a larger strategy including the grain embargo, tightening the exportation of high-technology equipment and major increases in military expenditures. "We have asked farmers to make sacrifices—" Cutler says. "At first we all tend to think of our own interests. Eventually, we come to think of the overall interest."

The USOC executive board met for about eight hours in Colorado Springs last Saturday. Then Kane, looking simultaneously weary, relieved and bemused, announced that the resolution supporting the President—to a point just short of boycott—had been "hammered out and passed with the full support of the executive board." He read the resolution and answered some questions. Then, with an odd smile, he said, "The question is whether the Olympic movement is to be made into a weapon to get the Big Bear, [but remember] the weapon is made of flesh and blood.

PHOTOWith a U.S. boycott of the Olympics a virtual certainty, the 1980 Games—and mascot Misha—will not be the real stuff. TWO PHOTOS TWO PHOTOSCutler presented Carter's case to the USOC and Onek made sure no one missed the point. PHOTOLedsky made it clear the action is "punitive." PHOTO"Why is this bear smiling? " asks Games mascot licensee Blum in an office stuffed with Mishas. PHOTOThe USOC's Kane wasn't at all keen on the plan.
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Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)