Here and there you find them, American expatriates in Moscow to compete in an Olympics their country of origin has shunned. They say they can justify their presence, but at times they seem a bit embarrassed. None of them shows much joy at being here. The somber, rather foreboding atmosphere of the pillage, a striking contrast to the freewheeling, athlete-to-athlete spirit of past Olympics, seems to have created a feeling of discomfort, a feeling that they've walked in on the wrong party.
Wayne Brabender, a 6'4" guard who played basketball for the University of Minnesota (Morris branch), has been the mainstay of the Spanish national team for 12 years. "The boycott doesn't affect me," he says. "Mi postura—how do you say it in English?—my posture is very clear. I am a Spanish basketball player. An American boycott of the Olympics doesn't have anything to do with me."
Brabender is standing outside the 10-foot-high chain-link fence that separates the Olympic Village workout area from the outside world, shivering as a chill wind comes whipping across the practice track. He pulls his woolen jacket more tightly around his shoulders. "I know this boycott is very touchy," he says. "Being here is something I'll eventually have to cope with. I mean, my parents still live in Minnesota.
"Look, for years I was a nobody. I couldn't even get a scholarship to a four-year college. I got hurt my senior year at Milan [Minn.] High, and the only place I could go was Willmar [Minn.] Community College. For years nobody gave a damn about me, and now everybody's interested in what I have to say. What I say is that I'm 34 years old, and I've got a wife from Navarra and two children, and I have a Spanish passport, not American. I love Spain and I plan to live there. Does that answer it?"
July 27, 1980
On the way to a workout Alberto Mercado, a Puerto Rican flyweight boxer who won a gold medal at the 1979 Pan Am Games, pauses to answer the question he has been asked many times. "We participate for Puerto Rico," he says of the Puerto Rican Olympic team, which consists of three fighters. "The U.S. decision is its decision. Ours was to come. Does it feel strange being here? Yes and no. I have many good friends on the American team."
"Morally, it's probably not right being here," says Mike Sylvester, 28, a native of Cincinnati, a graduate of Dayton and now a 6'5" guard and the high scorer on the Italian Olympic basketball team. "I mean, what is this thing here? This whole big beautiful thing is one big political demonstration. I was all for the boycott. I thought if everyone got together and did it, it would have been a demonstration the Russians couldn't have ignored. I even thought it might help clear up things in Afghanistan. But I'm not for the half-assed way things worked out.
"Look, morals are one thing, but I've got a career to think about, a living for my wife and family. And there's an economic side of this on a national level, too. Italy does big, big business with the Soviet Union."
Rocky Crosswhite, the 6'9" captain of the Australian basketball team, grew up in Bethesda, Md. Twelve years ago Crosswhite was a member of the first of Lefty Driesell's Davidson teams to make the NCAA tournament. He emigrated to Australia, became a citizen and has represented Australia in three Olympics, twice captaining the Aussie team. He sits now at a table in the main plaza of the Village's international zone.
"Let's face it," he says. "This isn't the Olympics, it's the Eastern European Games. Look at this...fences, security checks in and out...I went though nine of them on one trip the other day. And those green boxes with the electronic lights inside. We call 'em zappers.
"This is all supposed to be for friendship between athletes, right? The other night a bloke from Zimbabwe was visiting us in our quarters, and the guard made him leave. He said that athletes aren't allowed to go from block to block. At other Olympics you always were able to dance at the disco with some of the girls who worked as guides or translators, but they've forbidden them here. One night I went in there and saw blokes dancing with blokes."
"Why are you here?" he is asked.
"Our basketball team voted 14-1 to go," he says. "I was the one no vote. I decided to go along with my team, to keep it together. I'm 32 years old. I like to think I supply some leadership. I know I'm not here for my speed. I was going to have a banner made in Australia, and I was going to raise it as we marched in for opening ceremonies. It would've said: WHAT ABOUT AFGHANISTAN? Our chef de mission wouldn't let it be done. He said, 'You're guests of this country, and if you don't want to follow the rules, you shouldn't have come in the first place.' Other people thought I was crazy. Most of our 17- and 18-year-olds don't even know where Afghanistan is."
Australia was in turmoil for months before the Olympics. The Prime Minister told the team not to go. The Australian Olympic Committee voted 6-5 to attend, but four sports federations chose to stay home. So did some star athletes, including swimmer Tracey Wickham, the world-record holder in the women's 800-meter freestyle.
"I trained with Tracey all the way through," says Australian-born Rosemary Brown, her country's medal hopeful in the 200- and 400-free and a 19-year-old sophomore at the University of Florida. "The pressure just kept mounting up. It was unbelievable. We kept saying, 'What will we do?' Three papers ran a total of 45 editorials about how wrong we were. One of them said the blood of the Afghans will be on our hands."
She holds out her hands. "Do you see any blood on them?" she says. She stares across the plaza. "My father drove me to training every day for 10 years," she says. "Then when the Afghanistan thing happened, my father said, 'Rosemary, you shouldn't go.' That's all he said. He never tried to force his feelings on me, but it must be very hard on him, striving for something for 10 years, and seeing me finally achieve what we've always wanted, and then..."
Perhaps Sylvester, whose grandfather was from Bari, Italy, puts this conflict between morality and reality in perspective when he says, "As an Italian citizen, I have no choice at all. If I don't compete, I can be disqualified from playing there for life. Basketball means $50,000 a year to me. I know we're supposed to be amateurs, but everyone knows what the system is really like.
"We got $5,000 apiece for coming through the pre-Olympic qualifying in Geneva, another $1,000 each for finishing in first place there. Every time we go to an international event we get a silver ingot—an ounce and a half, two ounces, I don't know. I haven't weighed them.
"A bronze medal here will be worth $7,000 to $8,000 a head, a silver $15,000. And a gold? Who knows? The sky's the limit when Italians get emotional about something. You get $250 per game added to your pension, starting with 50 international games. Some guys have played 150 or 200. I still haven't hit my 50."
In an anteroom in the IOC meeting place, Soyuz Hall, the hall of unions that once was used by czarist nobility, Cornells Kerdel, 65, the Dutch IOC representative, discusses the history of Olympic protest. "I was chef de mission of the Dutch team at Melbourne in 1956," he says. "The Olympics came right after Russia's takeover in Hungary. We withdrew our team from Melbourne out of protest, along with a few other countries—I think it was us and the Swiss and the Spaniards and the Tunisians.
"It was a very emotional and direct response from us. The Queen spoke on the wireless, so did our Prime Minister...all the journalists agreed. This wasn't so long after the war, when we had been occupied ourselves. But our athletic teams suffered for years because they had dropped out of that competition. In retrospect, we might have consulted the athletes first.
"In Munich I was president of the Netherlands Olympic Commmittee and delegation leader. Some of our athletes left after the killing of the Israelis, and there was no attempt made to stop them. I remember one of our wrestlers came to see me in tears. He had trained with the Israeli wrestlers, especially one who was killed. He said, 'I can't train anymore. I can't go on.' If I could have, I would have gone home, too.
"Now we get the boycott at this Olympics. We left it to our individual teams. Some came, some didn't. What is wrong with this boycott is that not enough other sanctions were fully brought to bear. It is unjust to make athletes bear the conscience of the world."