It was almost as if some mad choreographer had decided to introduce a little comic relief into the grand spectacle of the XXII Olympic Games' opening ceremony last Saturday in Moscow's Lenin Central Stadium. The brilliantly costumed national teams, each preceded by a Soviet woman holding an identifying placard and by a flag bearer, would pass in review—the Indian men in orange headdress, the Cuban women entirely in red, the Ethiopians in ceremonial robes—and then along would come a Dick Palmer, a solitary English gentleman in a blue blazer, carrying only the Olympic flag, leading no one, appearing for all the world like a chap on an afternoon stroll who found himself in the midst of a, to him, incomprehensible procession from which he was unable to extricate himself.
But it was a chilling solemnity, not comedy, that Palmer, secretary to the British Olympic Association, and his fellow lonely strollers added to what is traditionally a joyous occasion. In the final accounting, 16 of the 81 competing nations in these diminished Games refused to carry their national flags into the stadium as a token protest against Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and, as Palmer would say later, "the exploitation of the Games for nationalistic purposes." Significantly—though not surprisingly—the team from Afghanistan, reduced to 17 members through defection, and death, received one of the louder ovations of the long day.
The mute protest of the 16 nations brought home the reality of the Games. Half of them left their teams behind in the Olympic Village; seven were represented only by Games functionaries, and Palmer was Great Britain's sole marcher. "A lonely thing out there," he said. Five men marched for New Zealand, but they carried a black flag on which the olive branch of peace and the five interlocking rings of the Olympic emblem were superimposed in white. The New Zealanders marched to murmurs, not cheers.
Still, these teams were in Moscow, many of them in defiance of the wishes of their governments. Sixty-two nations, including, of course, the United States, refused to participate. The boycott inspired by President Carter may not have succeeded as he had hoped, but the absence of athletes from the U.S., West Germany, Canada and Japan has made the Games little more than an Eastern bloc party, intelligence which the Soviet organizers have tried mightily to suppress.
The Olympic flags carried by the protesting nations were not shown on Russian television, and if no team followed the flag bearer, as with Palmer and the British, the camera moved deftly to the next contingent. The only note of Palmer's action was taken by the Soviet TV commentator, who said, "There is the clumsy plot that you all can see, against the traditions of the Olympic movement." He also remarked that Palmer's form of protest was linked to the U.S. boycott, carried out by "nations in conflict with their governments."
Lord Killanin, outgoing president of the International Olympic Committee, did persist in raising the unmentionable issue from time to time. In welcoming the participants and officials in the opening ceremonies, he reserved special commendation for "those who have shown their complete independence to travel to compete despite many pressures placed on them." And earlier in the week, at the opening session of the IOC meetings in Moscow, he advised the delegates that "I deeply regret that many athletes, either through political dictation or the dictates of their own consciences, are not here with us at the Games. Let me stress again...that I believe the athlete is frequently the victim of sports administrators." Killanin also jabbed at Carter when he said, "If football and baseball had been in the Olympic Games, perhaps we would not have had a boycott." But Killanin, who will pass the presidential torch, as it were, to Spain's Juan Antonio Samaranch when the Moscow Games conclude, could not have objected to the protesting flag bearers, for he, too, has long objected to the nationalism rampant in the Olympics.
In Moscow, the Olympic defectors were scarcely mentioned, as if by ignoring them they would, in a sense, go away. And yet the people knew. A young teacher from the Ukraine was asked on a chilly evening in Red Square if he understood why the U.S. had boycotted the Games. "Yes. There is a discrepancy between the policies of President Carter and our government," he replied in perfect English. And what is that discrepancy? "Afghanistan."
The week of the opening ceremonies in an Olympic city is generally an occasion for high excitement, considerable agitation, much confusion and unbearable traffic. But Moscow was more like a ghost town. The comparatively few citizens who did appear on the streets seemed subdued and joyless. Traffic on most thoroughfares was light, and there was elbow room on the sidewalks. As with all things in a nation run by planners, the Olympic calm came off the drawing board. By design, Moscow will be lighter by some two million residents during the 16 days of the Games; Muscovites were "encouraged" to take vacations out of town in the Olympic weeks, and a vastly increased summer-camp program has made the city virtually childless.
Normally, Moscow's population in summer increases by 1.5 to two million as tourists come in from other parts of the U.S.S.R. But Soviet citizens who are not on official business are being turned away at various checkpoints on roads leading into the capital. Private cars are also barred from the center lanes of Moscow streets so that Olympic traffic may pass unhindered. What remains is a city where about two million residents have cleared out and a like number of tourists have been kept out. What would normally be a teeming midsummer metropolis of 10 million has suddenly become a much more manageable community of six million.
Some of the population deficit was to have been filled by foreign Games-goers, particularly those intrepid camera-wielding globe-trotters from the U.S., West Germany and Japan. The city had anticipated some 500,000 visitors during the Olympics, 300,000 of them non-Soviet. Now fewer than 200,000 foreigners are expected. This could cost the Russians more than $150 million in hard currency spent. Americans alone were supposed to number about 30,000, but there were probably no more than a thousand or two in the city last week, and they made themselves notably scarce, perhaps out of embarrassment. Two young women from Connecticut, encountered outside the Kremlin, said they had made their travel plans so long ago they were reluctant to change them.
Thomas Watson, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.S.S.R., left Moscow two days before the Games and will not return until they are completed; 12 other ambassadors also departed in protest, including Britain's and Japan's. Peter Ueberroth, president of the Olympic Organizing Committee for the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, left a day after Watson. He was in town to answer the IOC's questions regarding his city's preparedness for the next Olympics. He did so to the committee's satisfaction, he said. "Our budget of half a billion dollars is raised, mostly through television rights, merchandising and ticket sales," said Ueberroth, 42, a former travel-business tycoon. "And the Russians have insisted they are coming." He and his seven-member entourage did not stay for the Games because, as he said, "I didn't think it would be appropriate. Let's put it this way, the [U.S.] government didn't discourage our visit here, but didn't encourage it either."
The Americans and other foreign tourists who have come to the Olympics have been treated with uncommon courtesy by the Muscovites who have stayed behind. This, too, is the result of planning. The government has emphasized to its people that while Russians are accustomed to getting the cold shoulder from waiters-and clerks, foreigners, presumably excluding those residing in New York City and Paris, are not. Because there is no particular advantage to be gained (no tips or commissions) by being polite or even efficient, service personnel in Moscow have a reputation for ignoring customers and then, upon consenting to accommodate them, treating them brusquely.
Not so during the Olympics. Everywhere there is service with a smile. Granitic Slavic countenances that have not been fissured by a pleasant expression for decades now beam with all the bonhomie of the president of your local Junior Chamber of Commerce. And you can dine in a Moscow restaurant in less than two hours.
The Soviets have their own code of manners, and violators are quickly admonished. In the first years after the revolution, the government was confronted with the not inconsiderable problem of raising a nation of peasants to literacy and some semblance of culture. Manners were emphasized, and such loutish behavior as placing feet on furniture was damned with the recurring criticism, "ni kulturni." Sometimes the view in the U.S.S.R. of what constitutes a breach of etiquette does not coincide precisely with a Westerner's.
Last week, for example, a weary English visitor decided to take a breather by sitting down on a stairway. He was instantly confronted by a finger-wagging Muscovite accusing him of being "ni kulturni." Properly chastised, the Britisher hurried off in search of another resting place, a table, maybe, or a sink.
Moscow has been scrubbed clean for the Olympics. Scarcely a gum wrapper profanes the sidewalks, and kerchiefed women are everywhere, sweeping away what little litter there is. Others are seen raking lawns clean of leaves and cutting grass to preserve an 18th-green look. These workers are, like most Muscovites, shy of cameras held by foreigners.
A BBC camera crew in search of local color descended on a pair of stocky lawn-rakers one day and watched in amusement as the women dropped their tools and hurried away. The TV men pursued them to a hiding place behind a taxicab. When the cabdriver spotted the cameramen, he sped off, leaving the frightened women exposed once again. A policeman arrived to settle the matter, and when the BBC crew turned its lens on him, he bolted in one direction and the rakers took off in another. The British then abandoned the chase.
Even without its new well-scrubbed look, Moscow is hardly the gloomy gray city of popular belief. St. Basil's, opposite the Kremlin, is a riot of color, its domes and turrets aflame with reds, greens and blues. The Kremlin itself, behind its red brick walls, is a pleasant gold, and the Bolshoi Theater is almost flesh-colored. Even the KGB headquarters has a yellowish tone. Seen from the Lenin Hills above the brown Moscow River, the city seems a patchwork of ponderous, dark neo-Gothic towers and small, bright pastel-shaded churches and apartment buildings. The Gothic structures, which include Moscow State University, the Ukraine Hotel and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, may be blamed on Stalin, whose passion for the medieval caused him to have seven such monstrosities constructed in the late '40s and early '50s.
Moscow is also a city of green grass and dense birch groves, a landscape seemingly hospitable to dogs. But there are few of them about; they, it seems, are at summer camp, too. One privileged pooch, a black-and-white-spotted cocker spaniel, is employed at the security office in the Olympic Village, sniffing for narcotics and poison among the camera cases and knapsacks carried there by the estimated 5,500 visiting journalists. Security in the Village and elsewhere in the city is perhaps unparalleled in Olympic history. It has been reported that every sixth person in Moscow during the Games will be working for the police or the KGB, and soldiers by the thousands have been brought in from surrounding camps. A veritable regiment of them stood guard against nonexistent spectators for miles along the Komsomolsky Prospekt on the day the Olympics opened. A person entering the Village or any of the principal hotels must pass through the metal detectors common to American airports and show his identity badge. Photographs are constantly checked against the faces they allegedly portray.
The Village itself is patrolled inside and out by soldiers carrying AK-47 rifles, and the surrounding wire fences give it more the aspect of a prison camp than a residence for some of the world's finest athletes. Only the Soviet and the Olympic flags fly in the Village square, and the atmopshere, despite the presence of so many young persons, is almost as subdued as in the city itself. "I'm not totally happy this time," says Herb McKenley, coach of the Jamaican track team and a 1952 gold-medal winner in the 4x400-meter relay. "I suppose I've built up a certain phobia in my mind, but I don't feel the Olympic spirit as I have in other years. The Village is a little dead."
Moscow began to come to life on Friday when the Olympic torch was borne to Red Square through streets rimmed with tens of thousands of Muscovites. And though the skies were somber and threatening for Saturday's opening ceremony, the rain held back until evening. The Russians love a pageant, and they got a big one. The parade and ceremony required an hour and a half, and the ensuing entertainment lasted another hour and 45 minutes. The day ended with gymnasts forming a human flower display that covered every foot of the soccer field-sized infield and had the polite, mannerly crowd applauding happily. The gymnasts applauded them in return.
The actual ceremony was, despite the protests, an orderly affair. Russian men and women in Ancient Greek tunics entered first, sprinkling rose petals on the track where the athletes would march. On the south side of the field some 5,000 card-stunt performers provided an "artistic background" to the pageantry, depicting Mount Olympus and the Acropolis in the beginning and Mischa, the 1980 Games' bear mascot, as the program ended. Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev, standing in a cavernous VIP box, officially opened the Games as the cards spectacularly portrayed the Olympic emblem in changing colors.
The torch was carried into the stadium by Russian Olympic triple jumper Viktor Saneyev, a three-time gold medalist, and he passed it on to basketball player Sergei Belov, the Jerry West of the East. Belov ran directly into the card-stunt section, where a platform wondrously unfolded and led him to the gigantic caldron at the rim of the stadium. Belov raised the torch in salute to spectators and participants, and then, to the taped cantata Ode to Sport, he ignited the Olympic flame, and 5,000 pigeons were released.
Actually, it was the second time that day that birds were sent aloft. Earlier, 22 white doves, symbolizing the fact that these are the 22nd Summer Games, fluttered from the hands of their carriers. They flew as a flock to the east end of the stadium and reversed themselves, as doves always seem to do. Then 21 of them continued to soar over the anxious spectators, but the 22nd headed for the scoreboard at the east end and settled on top of it for a time. Finally, it flew off in the direction opposite that taken by its feathered friends. It was not seen again. One may presume it is the last defector of this troubled Olympics.