There was worldwide disagreement last week over the prognosis for the battered body Olympic, following its latest beating by international boycotters. Was the victim still showing vital signs, or should it be given last rites? The editors of the lurid London Daily Mail weren't in doubt. They pronounced the Games dead as a doornail, the day after the Soviet pullout, in a Page One obituary that read in part, "The Olympic Games, as we knew and loved them and then grew to hate them, died yesterday of malice, greed and corruption. There will be few mourners." The sensational London Daily Express spoke with even greater scorn: "Better that the whole rotten mess be interred as quickly as possible. It has been a terminal case for years."
In less strident tones, more respectful observers also described the current injuries as being fatal, or nearly so. The Chicago Tribune editorialized, "If the IOC can hear the death knell of its movement tolling from two ruined Olympics, perhaps it will begin a genuine debate on the reforms needed to resurrect and cleanse the Games."
U.S. marathoner Alberto Salazar said, "It's going to be a death blow for the Olympics if the Russians carry through. It's happened too many times in a row, now." Perhaps the most surprising pallbearer was Toronto attorney James Worrall, 70, a former Olympic hurdler who has been an International Olympic Committee member since 1967. "I've never been a pessimist, but I must say a recurrence of this type seems a tragic blow," said Worrall last week. "This certainly brings us pretty damn close to the end."
The end of the Olympic Games. Even for skeptics and cynics, that's a shocking, somehow unthinkable idea, much like the God Is Dead theory of theology, which was briefly in vogue in the mid-'60s. That passed, and possibly the current reports that the Olympics are breathing their last will prove to be premature as well. But even if the Games aren't at death's door, how much punishment can the so-called Olympic Ideal absorb and still survive?
May 20, 1984
As everyone knows, every Summer Olympics over the past 20 years has been tainted by politics. Tokyo '64 was the last one to escape without political disfigurement or outright atrocity. After Tokyo came Mexico City in 1968, when some 260 antigovernment demonstrators were massacred on the eve of the Games. Those Olympics also are remembered for Tommie Smith's and John Carlos' black power salute. Then came Munich '72, with its heartbreaking, bloody murders, and Montreal '76, with its boycott by 26 black African countries over the perpetual problem of South African apartheid. Finally, of course, Moscow '80 was reduced to a wan shadow of the mighty festival the Soviets so dearly desired, because of the 55-nation boycott organized by Jimmy Carter in retaliation for the invasion of Afghanistan. And now Los Angeles '84 is reeling. Said Sebastian Coe, Great Britain's superb middle-distance runner, last week, "It's as bad as it was in 1980. I think, looking at it again, that the Americans have sown the seed and reaped the whirlwind."
But will the whirlwind continue to howl on and on and on through the rest of the 20th century? Coe again: "The Games have been done a lot of damage, but I think the Olympic movement will survive. I have to say, though, that it isn't functioning in the way it was meant to. Certainly there is no reason to believe that Seoul will be any less of a problem for the IOC in '88 than recent Games have been."
Ah, yes, the '88 Olympics, to be held in the Republic of South Korea. When the IOC selected Seoul in 1981, during a typically opulent get-together in Baden-Baden, West Germany, only one other city, Nagoya, Japan, bid for the Games. One IOC official viewed Nagoya's presentation as "old and complacent," while Seoul's was thought to be "fresh and alive." Besides, a handful of banner-waving anti-Olympic protesters from Nagoya picketed outside the IOC meeting rooms. "They [the IOC members] always remember Denver," says the committee's executive secretary, Monique Berlioux, referring to that city's referendum that forced the '76 Winter Games to be moved from Colorado to Innsbruck. In addition, South Korea showered IOC members with lavish gifts and VIP trips, and Seoul got the nod.
In retrospect, it was an amazing choice. Harry Edwards, a University of California sociology professor who tried to organize a boycott of the '68 Games by black American athletes, was appalled by the IOC's decision. "How is it possible for them to select Seoul and not expect trouble?" says Edwards. "The Soviets and their satellites do not recognize South Korea. North Korea is a client state of the U.S.S.R. The South Koreans accuse the North Koreans of shooting half their government leaders in Rangoon. The Russian military shot down South Korea's Flight Seven. What a setting for terrorism."
Whether the Soviets will 'find South Korea safer than Los Angeles, and thus decide to attend, is anyone's guess. Last week, an aura of melancholy engulfed Seoul. The influential newspaper, Dong-A Ilbo, editorialized sadly, "The Soviet decision reflects the fact that the Olympic Games are being victimized as a target of political bargaining, and casts a gloomy shadow over the future of the sports festival." But Olympic facilities, some quite stunning architecturally, are already popping up around town, and, to be sure, not everyone is assuming the '88 Games will be a disaster.
One utterly predictable optimist is Barry Frank, senior corporate vice-president of Trans World International, who's acting as a highly paid consultant to Seoul in its negotiations with the U.S. TV networks. "Don't worry," says Frank, "everyone will be in Korea in 1988. If any of the superpowers were to pass up Seoul, that would be the end of the Olympics forever, and no country would want that on its conscience."
Conscience? A country with a conscience? Such is the superoptimism of born supersalesmen. Still, television—specifically American network TV—will be one of the most important factors in determining the fate of the Games. Jim Spence, ABC Sports' longtime senior vice-president, who has helped negotiate deals in all eight Winter and Summer Games his network has televised since 1964, says, "I think it's safe to say that we in the television business in the U.S. have been more responsible for the incredible worldwide popularity of the Olympics than any other single entity. And, without being Pollyannaish or totally altruistic, I think that with our financial commitment and our capabilities of exposure, we're in a position to preserve the Olympics from the elements that threaten them today. I don't think even the force of politics—not even something as devastating as the Soviet pullout—will necessarily mean the end of the Olympic movement as long as U.S. television continues to support it."
Of course, Olympic purists—if any of that wide-eyed breed still exists—have always been horrified by the commercialization and hucksterism that American TV has slathered on the Games. But like it or not, Spence is right: Without commercial TV and its dazzling technology, the Olympics wouldn't have grown into the global superspectacle they are. Further, Spence is also probably right when he says that only American commercial TV can preserve the Olympics in anything resembling its present form. So why not carry his view to its logical conclusion and use that dazzling technology as the force that keeps the Games intact—at least philosophically if not physically? It has been suggested that one way to curtail the political shenanigans that the Olympics inevitably attract is to spread a given Games over several countries, with different events taking place in different locations. Some people object to this idea because seeing all those national teams at a single site has come to be considered an essential element of the Olympics. Brooks Johnson, the outspoken Stanford University track coach, who's serving in the same capacity for the U.S. women's track team, makes a strong point when he says, "We've gotten hung up on the wrong concept. The Olympics isn't an athletic show, it's a nationalistic extravaganza. Think about it, the most expensive tickets are for the opening and closing ceremonies, not for sports events."
True enough. But with the Games parceled out to several countries and television serving as a unifying device, maybe pure sport could become the primary emphasis. John Martin, for years ABC's No. 1 Olympic programming vice-president and now the president of a telecommunications company, informally broached a similar, though much more exciting, idea to the IOC a year ago. "I suggested that they combine the Winter and Summer Olympics into one big spectacular," says Martin. "Have, say, six Olympic capital cities and have the Games held for, say, the whole month of May." Martin proposed putting Alpine skiing in, say, the Andes of Chile, figure skating in Tokyo, track and field in Moscow, swimming and diving in Peking, ice hockey in Montreal, gymnastics in Nairobi. Hence, for one glorious, gluttonous month every four years the world would wallow in an unprecedented television feast of sport. What was the IOC's reaction to Martin's fascinating brainstorm? "They looked at me as if I'd lost my mind," he says.
In the hand-wringing over the latest Olympic quake, many observers have suggested that if only the Games could be held in a permanent location—Switzerland and Greece are the countries most often mentioned—they would somehow be insulated from the brutalizing effects of hardball superpower politics. Unfortunately, there is no way ever again of protecting the Games from such intrusion, no matter where they are held. As USOC president William E. Simon said last week, "We'll always have problems with the Games because they're too big a spectacle for politicians not to monkey with." Says Robert M. Jiobu, associate professor of sociology at Ohio State and coauthor of Sports: A Social Perspective, "With the Carter boycott, the Olympics have been totally politicized. It's really a political instrument now more than anything else. Athletes are totally disregarded in the equation."
Yes, the facts of life in the nuclear age are complex and convoluted and, to an idealist, distressing. In the Italian newspaper La Stampa of Turin, an editorial writer labeled the Soviet use of the Olympics as an element of political strategy "a variation on Clausewitz" and pointed out a lamentable truth of our times: "Today, given the impossibility of launching an atomic war, we use the Olympics to make war." Le Matin de Paris editorialized, "The problem is no longer to know if the Games are dead, or even who killed them.... The problem is that the Games remain the last good way to make war without killing anyone."
Well, that's true. Using young Olympians as pawns in these grim games of international politics is a dirty trick, but it costs very little—no weapons, no money to speak of, no brinkmanship and, most wonderful blessing of all, no lives. For future reference, however, no one involved with the Olympics—participant, patron or spectator—should ever again be deluded: We will never excise politics from the Olympics, and we will never remove, insulate, conceal or protect the Games from the whirlwinds of world politics, because the Olympics are politics.
So, if the Games do weather the current upheaval and then somehow survive the minefield that appears to be awaiting them in Seoul, the Olympics of 1992 will almost certainly be held in IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch's hometown, Barcelona, Spain. In 1996 they'll more than likely move to Athens or Paris to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the modern Games, which were founded by the French baron, Pierre de Coubertin. And in the year 2000? Well, maybe it will be time for yet another obituary, which will probably be just as premature as the ones printed last week.