The Tarnished Olympics

Jane O’Hara May 21 1984

The Tarnished Olympics

Jane O’Hara May 21 1984

The Tarnished Olympics


Jane O’Hara

The arrival of Moscow’s regrets could not have been more deftly timed. In New York City the Olympic flame had just begun its winding 15,000-km transcontinental journey toward Los Angeles, where, after having been passed hand to hand by 4,000 runners, it is scheduled to arrive July 28 to open the 23rd Olympiad. But the flame, which symbolizes the high and shining ideals of the Olympic spirit, flickered and dimmed last week, caught in the gusting winds of superpower politics. The announcement that the Soviet Union’s formidable 800-member team would boycott the Los Angeles Games had been widely forecast. Still, it was shocking when it came. And it was quickly followed by similar declarations from the Soviet Union’s Eastern Bloc allies: Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Mongolia, Vietnam, Laos and, most devastating to fans and athletes alike, East Germany, an international sports power of the first rank. Other refusals to participate seemed inevitable and, although the Games would go on, once again the future of Olympic competition—the greatest sports show on earth—was open to serious doubt. The problem, as usual, was politics.

Terrorism: The Soviet boycott caused near-panic at the former helicopter factory that serves as headquarters for the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee (LAOOC). The loss of scores of gold medal-calibre competitors was bitter enough to contemplate, but the organizers, as well as the world’s athletes and millions of ordinary sports fans, were left to wonder whether the Olympic concept itself could survive. For almost 30 years the Olympic motto of “higher, faster, stronger” has been overshadowed by nonathletic problems. There have been acts of terrorism, political boycotts, drug scandals and disputes over the definition of amateurism. All have marred the modern Games, which French Baron Pierre de Coubertin raised from the ashes of ancient Greece in 1896. Increasingly, the Olympics have become less a forum for athletic achievement than a global soapbox for nations trying to settle political scores. Said American Alberto Salazar, the world champion marathoner: “I think the Olympics as we know them have come to an end.”

The Soviet Union had been threatening to boycott the 1984 Games almost since 1980, when then-U.S. President Jimmy Carter ordered the U.S. team not to attend the Moscow Olympics in a largely futile protest against the Red Army’s invasion of Afghanistan. Carter’s decision provoked withdrawals by 56 other nations and dashed Soviet dreams of scoring a stunning propaganda coup with the elaborately staged Moscow competition. Last week’s Soviet announcement appeared to many observers to be an act of simple retaliation. But even though it had a certain air of finality, it sparked a series of diplomatic manoeuvres in the faint hope of effecting a change of heart before the final June 2 deadline for entries. President Ronald Reagan issued a statement regretting the Soviet decision and he added that the ancient Greeks used to suspend wars during Olympiads.

Said Reagan: “I wish we were still as civilized.”

In Los Angeles the LAOOC, which had skilfully planned a self-financing Olympiad (page 45), began scrambling to

absorb an estimated $100 million in revenue losses expected to result from the Soviet and East German withdrawal. Equally unhappy were television networks, including ABC, which had paid $225 million for the television rights (page 46). For the souvenir hawkers, hotel owners, ticket sellers and Californian restaurateurs, there were worries that earlier estimates of 675,000 visitors and $4 billion in additional tourist spending might not be reached. With 16 days and 21 sports on the Olympic calendar, the LAOOC had a total of seven million seats to fill. But with the Eastern Bloc stars absent, there were immediate fears that fans would be absent, too. Indeed, it was uncertain how many people would book into $125 hotel rooms and purchase event tickets, which run as high as $200, to see what may prove to be nothing more than a glorified PanAmerican Games under an Olympic banner. And

1 Peter Ueberroth, the self§ made-millionaire presz ident of the LAOOC, g clearly anticipated fur" ther withdrawals, pos2 sibly including Poland

and Cuba. “We are going to be receiving a one-a-day bitter pill,” he said.

The Soviet statement, read over state television, was a litany of complaints about the way the Games were being organized. In particular, Moscow charged that the lives of its athletes would be endangered by anti-Soviet extremists and it complained that the organizers had flouted the traditions and ideals of the Olympic charter by excessive hucksterism.

Annoyance: For more than a year Soviet officials have been sniping at the 1984 Olympics, arguing about everything from smog and housing for the athletes to the high crime rate in Los Angeles, a city widely referred to in the Soviet press as a “polluted den of vice.” In March, Moscow protested angrily when the U.S. state department denied a visa to a Soviet Olympic attaché because the Americans said he was a highranking officer of the KGB, the Soviet secret police. Finally, the Californiabased anticommunist group known as the Ban the Soviets Coalition caused increasing annoyance in Moscow. The coalition, formed last year after the Soviet downing of the Korean airliner 007, had pledged to lead mass demonstrations against the Soviets during the Olympics and said it would sponsor aerial and billboard advertising campaigns denouncing the Kremlin. Then the group

added that it would also provide 500 “safe houses” as well as financial assistance to any Soviet athlete who defected. Said David Balsiger, one of the organizers: “The Soviets couldn’t get our government to agree to a ban on the basic rights of free assembly guaranteed by our constitution.”

The state department responded to Moscow’s announcement with a stiffly worded rejection of the Soviet accusations, calling the boycott a “blatant political action for which there was no justification.” After that angry retort, the Reagan administration began analysing the Soviet statement for hidden messages and assessing its potential impact on the president’s upcoming reelection bid. What was clear, according to diplomatic observers, was that the recent frostiness between Washington and Moscow had reached new arctic lows. According to some Western diplomats, the Olympics dispute signalled a hardening of the Soviet foreign policy line, a development that some experts

had predicted ever since Communist Party Chairman Konstantin Chernenko succeeded Yuri Andropov in February.

Indeed, within two days of the boycott announcement the Soviets also cancelled a high-level ministerial visit to China—a thinly disguised gesture of disapproval for Reagan’s recent China visit. Said Robert Hunter, a foreign affairs expert at the Washingtonbased Independent Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former member of the National Security Council: “The Soviets are trying to say how bad Reagan is and that they cannot deal with his government. It’s a signal.” Safety: For his part, Reagan decided late last week to send his own signal to Moscow. International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Juan Antonio Samaranch, a former Spanish ambassador to the Soviet Union, announced that he would take a letter from Reagan to Chernenko this week. The letter would contain another U.S. commitment to assure the Soviet athletes’ safety. But it was clear that Washington was not prepared to make further concessions to woo the Soviets back to the Games. Indeed, concessions had already been made. The Americans had agreed to allow at least 25 charter flights by the state-owned Soviet airline Aeroflot into

the United States (Aeroflot lost its U.S. landing privileges in 1981 for flying too close to U.S. military installations). As well, the state department had approved a Moscow request to dock a cruise ship in Long Beach harbor, near the Olympic site, to serve as a Soviet headquarters during the Games. The estimated cost of safeguarding the ship—$500,000—was almost half the total the Americans had budgeted for protecting the Soviets. “We went the last mile to assure the Russians’ safety,” said John Hughes, a state department spokesman. “Our conscience is clear.”

But civility has been sorely lacking in most Olympics—except for Tokyo in 1964—since the Melbourne Games in 1956. China withdrew in 1956 because Taiwan was allowed to participate. The Chinese were joined on the sidelines by the Dutch and the Spanish, who pulled out protesting that the brutal Soviet response to an uprising in Hungary earlier that year had “spoiled the festive Olympic spirit.” Although the IOC, the musty body that governs the modern Olympics, has tried repeatedly to devise ways of eliminating politics from the Games, it has failed. At the 1968 Mexico Olympics the massacre of 49 students by police during antigovernment demonstrations cast a pall on the Games. And black American runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos drew worldwide

attention to the U.S. civil rights issue by raising gloved fists skyward from the medal-winners’ podium in a symbolic gesture of black power. Munich’s 1972 Games will go down in history as perhaps the most barbaric, because of a Palestinian terrorist attack that killed 11 Israeli athletes. And in 1976,31 African and Third World countries withdrew from Montreal’s financially troubled Games to protest the presence of New Zealand, whose rugby team, the famed All Blacks, had played a series against the Springboks from apartheidruled South Africa.

Interference: The continual political interference has caused frustration for athletes as well as organizations. Said world-ranked pentathlete Diane Jones Konihowski, who loudly protested Canada’s decision not to compete at Moscow in 1980 when she had a chance to win a medal: “When you’re involved in sports, you really have to look at it and wish the heck that politics would stay out. Basically, the athletes train really hard and just want somewhere to go to compete against the best in the world.” The Soviet athletes were disappointed, too, although their complaints were understandably muted.

At the Luzhniki, the wooded park that surrounds Lenin Stadium, site of the Moscow Olympics, Soviet athletes went through their normal training routines last week, outwardly unper-

turbed. Tamara Bykova, the. Soviet world champion high jumper, was sanguine, after months of reading anti-Olympic diatribes in the stateowned press. Said Bykova: “I support the decision and so do my girlfriends. To be honest, when we visited the Olympic site during the winter everything seemed to be all right. But since then it has changed.” Added diving coach Vladimir Vasin, voicing Soviet fears about security: “How can you talk about friendly competition when, apart from the starting pistol, the sportsman expects a real shot from the stands?” Indeed, along with Los Angeles’ asphyxiating smog, security has been one of the LAOOC’s greatest concerns. At a projected cost of more than $100 million, the organizers planned to deploy the largest security force in Olympic history. An estimated 17,000 law enforcement officers from roughly 60 police forces will outnumber the competitors by more than two to one. The FBI alone will assign 700 agents to patrol the 4,500-square-mile area that includes Olympic facilities. The U.S. Secret Service, state department security officers and the U.S. Army will also contribute manpower. And the army’s crack Delta Force antiterrorist unit will be on standby alert. Despite those elab-

orate plans, the White House was double-checking everything. It commissioned Col. Charles Beckwith, who commanded the Delta Force during its failed 1980 attempt to rescue the American hostages in Iran, to write a special security evaluation.

Spotlight: Clearly, possible terrorist attacks are a major concern. The LAPD has set up an elaborate intelligence unit assigned to liaise with official security and antiterrorist forces both in the United States and Europe. Said Edgar Best, the LAOOC’s security director: “I hope security is there. I hope it’s unobtrusive. I hope it is efficient. But I certainly do not hope that it takes the spotlight off these Games.”

But unless the Soviets unexpectedly reverse their boycott decision, the spotlight will indeed be almost turned off. The Olympics rely on the pageantry of nations as well as competitive tensions between East and West to ensure their success as entertainment. The withdrawal by Communist nations will rob the Los Angeles Games of that tension, as well as hundreds of outstanding per-

formers. At present, the Soviet Union can claim 228 Olympic athletes ranking in the world’s top 10 in their events, and East Germany has 181. Hardest hit will be the track and field events, the premier Olympic attractions, which the East Germans dominated last year at the Helsinki world championships. The East German women’s team was expected to overpower the rest of the world at Los Angeles, perhaps winning 12 of 17 possible gold medals.

Domination: Among men’s events, rowing, canoeing,' cycling, soccer, boxing, wrestling, judo, fencing and field events are usually dominated by Soviet and East German competitors. North American and European coaches readily admitted that the competition will be severely diluted, which will mean relatively easy medals for some Western athletes, including American runner Mary Decker. Decker won both the 1,500and 3,000-m races at last year’s world championships, but she was pushed all the way by Soviet runners. Among the many Eastern Bloc stars who will miss the Games: sprinters Marita

Koch and Marlies Gohr, and world champion swimmer Ute Geweniger of East Germany; pole vaulter Sergei Bubka and superheavyweight lifter Anatoli Pisarenko of the Soviet Union.

The boycott will be a boon to Canada’s medal hopes in such sports as basketball, shooting, soccer, swimming, wrestling, yachting and women’s track and field. In men’s and women’s basketball, Canada could win a silver behind the United States. In boxing, with Soviet heavyweight Alexander Yakubshev out, Willie de Wit from Grand Prairie, Alta., will have a chance at the gold. Canadian women gymnasts, who have been in the top 10 in the world, could also move into the medals, and, with three of the top-seeded soccer teams gone, Canada’s strong lineup of North America Soccer League players will be fighting for a medal. In swimming, Canada already has two gold medal prospects in Alex Baumann of Sudbury, Ont., and Victor Davis of Guelph, Ont., but the Canadian women, although behind the Americans, could collect a handful of silvers and bronzes. In women’s track, sprinters Angella Taylor and Angela Bailey, both of Toronto, will likely do well

in the 100and 200-m and give Canada a medal in the 4xl00-m relay. Marita Payne of Concord, Ont., and Charmaine Crooks of Toronto will give Canada a strong entry in the women’s 400 m and, along with Molly Killingbeck of Toronto, they are expected to perform strongly in the 4x400 relay. In wrestling, Bob Mollie of Saskatoon and Chris Rinke of Vancouver were finalists at the last world wrestling championships and probably will be in contention.

Despair: Still, to most highly trained world-class athletes winning isn’t everything, and there was a widespread feeling that without the world’s top two teams, many 1984 Olympic victories will be hollow. Said the U.S. women’s track coach, Doris Brown Heritage: “My gut reaction was one of despair, real disappointment and frustration.”

The Soviet boycott undoubtedly will rekindle debate on reform of the Olympics. Open competition allowing professionals to participate is one suggestion. Another is that the Olympics should be held at a permanent and neutral site, out of the superpowers’ orbit—and, indeed, the Greeks last week said they would like to see the Games return to their original birthplace. It will be up to the IOC to decide, but one thing is certain: if the Games do not change, the world’s athletes will continue to be buffeted every four years by whatever political wind happens to be blowing.

With Keith Charles in Moscow, Pat Hickey in Vancouver and David Halpin-Byme.