At one point in the forced conviviality, as the 300 members of the U.S. Olympic Committee's House of Delegates assembled last weekend in Colorado Springs, USOC President Robert J. Kane was asked if he had kept a journal of his experiences during the 3½ months since President Carter had broached the idea of an Olympic boycott. Kane's sad, soft eyes narrowed as he said, "No. I couldn't stand to review anything this painful."
Kane and the USOC and the nation's 35 national sports governing bodies, not to mention its finest athletes, were inextricably caught in a vise of conflicting duties and tightening government pressure that was forcing the keepers of U.S. amateur sport toward a decision they were charged by their constitution—and for many, by their consciences—not to make: withholding the U.S. team from the Moscow Olympics.
Yet that was the decision they would reach, by a 2 to 1 margin. And in the end, though they had proved that they held their duty to their President higher than their yearning for the contests they had trained and planned for, the pain still showed. They were left exhausted and melancholy, and in some cases embittered.
Until the somber vote last Saturday afternoon, the USOC had played for time. In late January its executive board had stated it would bow to Carter's wishes if he felt that going to Moscow was harmful to national security, but the USOC would leave the final decision to its full House of Delegates. The hope was always that something would happen—perhaps a broad shift in public opinion away from favoring a boycott, perhaps a Soviet gesture in Afghanistan that could justify a modification of U.S. measures protesting the invasion. Neither had occurred.
April 21, 1980
But neither had the Administration's appeals for broad international support borne immediate fruit. Carter's call to shun the Games had caught the major Western-bloc countries by surprise, and hastily organized task forces in the White House and State Department took some time to learn the peculiar, rigid ways of international sports organizations, in particular the national Olympic committees, which pride themselves on independence from governments. There was perhaps not a quick enough understanding of the strength of the international feeling that sport, unlike business or cultural exchange, ought to be kept immune even from war. Irish Amateur Athletic Federation President William Coghlan—father of miler Eamonn—gave voice to this conviction by saying, "It must be remembered that Great Britain, now supporting the boycott, herself invaded Afghanistan over the Khyber Pass something like 25 times. She's still in Ireland. Yet civilized people set that aside when we compete." Thus, international sports bodies turned a deaf ear to the Administration's call for alternative Games.
When the British Olympic Association voted three weeks ago to send a team to Moscow against the wishes of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the USOC began to nurse secret hopes that it, too, might challenge its government. Then the White House began to bear down. Sports officials were invited to the State Department for strongly worded briefings which not only presented the Administration case that a boycott was a crucial element in a coordinated U.S. response to a dangerous situation in Afghanistan, but also made it clear that extraordinary measures would be taken to see to it that the USOC had no choice but to comply.
Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti said the President could prevent athletes from participating in the Games under provisions of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. Carter, speaking to the American Society of Newspaper Editors on Thursday, the day before the USOC meetings would convene, said, "If legal actions are necessary, then I will take those actions." At a meeting of Congressional leaders, it was reportedly suggested that the tax-exempt status of sports organizations be examined if the boycott were not supported. There was evidence as well, despite denials from White House Counsel Lloyd Cutler, that certain corporations were pressured to withhold support from the USOC, already $1.2 million shy of reaching its goal of $4.4 million in contributions for the first quarter of this Olympic year. Sears, Roebuck and Co. threatened to withhold a promised contribution of $25,000. While not admitting to knowledge of specific arm-twisting, former Treasury Secretary William Simon, the USOC treasurer, said, "The very fact that phone calls were made is in itself tragic."
AAU President Robert Helmick was incensed, saying, "We cannot allow the government to set a precedent here, because the precedent is pure coercion. Should government influence corporations on how they donate to charities? Should we stand for selective tax-exempt status? Selective lifting of passports?"
The athletes' feelings quickly shifted from eagerness for debate to awed recognition that the Administration would stop at little to have its way. "I didn't realize this whole thing could get so vicious," said Doris Brown Heritage, a five-time world cross-country champion.
"This kind of pressure is like death," said four-time Olympic long jumper Martha Watson. "You don't really think about it until it takes someone you love." Indeed, some athletes said their thoughts seemed an echo of those they had at the time of the Olympic terror in 1972 when, identifying with the doomed Israelis, they felt themselves hostage to men who were incapable of understanding their values, who only craved the attention they drew.
It didn't make it any easier to continually be reminded that the American public was strongly behind the President, be he coercive or not. "I was on a talk show originating in Minnesota," said modern pentathlete Loren Drum. "In an hour not one caller was opposed to the boycott." The accusation athletes all cringed to hear was that they were unpatriotic, unable to see anything more important than selfish participation in a Soviet propaganda exercise. In reply, they issued a statement reaffirming their fundamental agreement with the President's ends and saying it was only on the means that they differed. They believed that a stronger protest could be made by going to Moscow, competing, but not taking part in the opening, closing and medal ceremonies.
"What was the most effective use of symbol?" asked marathoner Don Kardong. "The African boycott of the Montreal Games, which passed without a ripple, or the raised fist of Tommie Smith on the victory stand at Mexico City in 1968, which is indelible in the memory of everyone who saw it?"
Some delegates writhed between the horns of their dilemma. "I feel I have no choice but to support the President or be perceived as supporting the Russians," said Dr. T. E. Dillon of the National Rifle Association. "I resent that."
The Soviets themselves were agitated by the force of the Administration's campaign, TASS, the Soviet news agency, had said Carter has used sports more "brazenly and cynically" than anyone in Olympic history. Word of the possibility of a U.S. boycott had reached the Soviet public, but as of early this week the USOC vote had not been reported in the Soviet press.
The White House certainly took the USOC House of Delegates meeting seriously. On short notice Vice-President Mondale flew to Colorado Springs the afternoon before the vote, bringing along Cutler, deputy White House counsels Joseph Onek and Dr. Robert Berenson, and Nelson Ledsky and Jane Wales of the State Department.
After USOC Second Vice-President E. Newbold Black encouraged the group "to rise and greet our distinguished guest warmly" (to prevent a recurrence of the athletes' silence when meeting Carter in the White House in March), Mondale entered and delivered the Administration's case in unequivocal terms, to say the least.
"History holds its breath," he said, "for what is at stake is no less than the future security of the civilized world." He touched all the crucial themes: the brutality of the Soviet invasion, the threat it seems to pose to oil supplies, the Soviets' construing of attendance at the Games as approval of the USSR's foreign policy, the wishes of the U.S. public. "I am convinced that the American people do not want their athletes cast as pawns in that tawdry propaganda charade," said Mondale. He drew parallels between the situation in 1936 and today, saying the call then for a boycott of Hitler's Games was rejected, "and the reasons for rejection are bone-chilling." They were, he said, the same ones we were hearing again, that sports should not be dragged into politics, that a boycott will destroy the Olympic movement, will only penalize American athletes, will leave the U.S. alone out in the cold.
The result in the 1936 Games, he said, was that despite the triumphs of Jesse Owens, Hitler scored a propaganda success, thought international animosity toward him was a thing of the past, and "before long, the Nazi war machine scarred the face of Europe—and soon the night closed in."
Besides being an interpretation of events that historians might find questionable (Hitler's intentions were rather definite long before 1936), these observations were not exactly embraced by a body that cherishes the memory of the late Owens, whose performances have always been thought a magnificent embarrassment to Hitler's racist theories. But Mondale's tone was mild, and he passed on to assurances of the President's support of amateur sports development, and a call for a return to the ancient "truce of the gods," in which "no nation may serve as the Olympic host while invading and subjugating another."
Mondale departed to respectful applause. Indeed, the speech had seemed to settle the USOC into a sense of the inevitability of its vote. Even Douglas F. Roby, one of two Americans on the International Olympic Committee, said, "I have always felt that if the nation were in true jeopardy, I would abandon the IOC position [against bending to political pressure]. We have done the best we could. There is no use butting your head against a steel wall."
The athletes, however, saw it out to the end. After a resolution to not send a team had been moved, Chris Knepp of the U.S. Baseball Federation countered with one citing Article IX of the USOC constitution, which states, "No member of the USOC may deny, or threaten to deny, any amateur athlete the opportunity to compete in the Olympic Games," and proposing that the USOC therefore accept the invitation to go to Moscow.
It was not an emotional debate, but one characterized by respect for due process and clear language. Simon spoke formally and eloquently on the rightness of supporting the President. His speech was given an ovation. Canoeist Andy Toro found his courage failing at that moment. " 'God,' I thought, 'I don't want to get up there after that.' " But it was Knepp who was recognized next, and he spoke easily and without notes, tracing his progress from support of the boycott to opposition because of the Administration's tactics. Later he would say, "I'm usually nervous before a large group. But today I simply felt tired. I watched Bob Kane, a man who had done everything he could. It was easy to look at him and speak compassionately for the athletes' cause."
Anita DeFrantz, lawyer and rower, concluded the athletes' argument. Later, Cutler, gracious in victory, would say that if he ever got back to private practice he would like to offer her a job. Now she urged courage upon the delegates, courage to ignore the pressures that Cutler had brought to bear. "We define our liberty by testing it," she said. "This is such a test." She, too,' was applauded, and the vote was called. USOC Executive Director F. Don Miller collected the ballots in an empty water pitcher. The final count in the complicated weighted voting system used by the USOC was 1,604 in favor of the boycott, 797 opposed, with two abstentions.
Kane, in releasing the results to the press, said, "I am satisfied it was a completely right decision, while feeling desperately sorry for the athletes who have been hurt by it." He defended the athletes at length, saying, "They believed there was another way to demonstrate their disapproval, by not going to the ceremonies, so' it is unfair, it is a slur, to call them unpatriotic."
The athletes issued a statement wishing those of nations who compete in the Games the best of luck. "We felt to urge others not to go would be selfish," said quarter-miler Fred Newhouse, a gold and silver medalist in the 1976 Games. "That would be saying, since we can't, we don't want anyone else to participate."
Though there remained the possibility of a legal action to require the USOC to conform to its constitution, the athletes felt they had done the best they could. "It was fair," said Newhouse. "We were allowed the opportunity to present our position. We did so admirably. I just hope everybody voted his conscience." Gradually the athletes drew away, to think, to commiserate, some to lose themselves in a run through the inimically bright Colorado day.
"We never give up," said DeFrantz. "That's why we got where we are."
The spirit of sacrifice prevailed as well in the body's vote to display no interest in a major alternative Games, although the athletes will continue through Olympic Trials and previously scheduled pre-Olympic competition. When Cutler was asked what steps would be taken should the IOC make provision now for Americans to enter the Games as individuals, he said that while the President was reluctant to place restrictions on travel, "athletes in the Olympics represent their nations. And it is clear that this nation does not want to be represented in the Moscow Games. So it may be that some legal action is possible to prevent athletes from doing that." Executive Director Miller repeated the President's earlier promise to honor the sacrifice of this year's Olympians, possibly through the striking of special medals. He said that after the USOC's action, he was sure other nations would join in the boycott, and almost as he spoke, word was delivered that Chancellor Helmut Schmidt had firmly indicated that West Germany would not attend the Games.
Then Saturday night, the White House's highest hopes suddenly seemed to have a chance of being met when Roby was asked what the IOC would do if the vote confirming a U.S. boycott precipitated a wholesale rush by other nations to follow suit. "If we don't get the important countries," he said, "it is my opinion that the IOC will cancel the Games."
"I am satisfied it was a completely right decision, while feeling desperately sorry for the athletes who have been hurt by it."
USOC President ROBERT KANE
"History holds its breath, for what is at stake is no less than the future security of the civilized world."
Vice-President WALTER MONDALE