• U.S.

A Soviet Nyet To the Games

23 minute read
George J. Church

The Olympic flame, kindled at the ruins of Olympia in Greece, arrived in New York City twelve hours later aboard a U.S. Air Force jet. It was a dispiriting day for pageantry: raw, windy, drizzly. But as runners started the torch on its zigzag, 15,000-kilometer journey across 33 of the 50 American states, the dark skies seemed only to intensify the symbolic glow. The second runner, 91-year-old Abel Kiviat, silver medalist in the 1,500-meter race in the 1912 Olympics, had no inkling that anything was amiss as he ended his appointed kilometer; he lit the torch of twelve-year-old Timothy Towers, who had won the honor in a raffle, and urged, “Carry on.” But as the 22nd runner, Nicole Zell, age 13, started her kilometer outside city hall in Manhattan shortly after noon, word crackled over radios in the sparse crowd that the Olympics were once more being seared by political animosity. Moscow had just announced that when the last torchbearer carries the flame into the Los Angeles Coliseum on July 28 and President Reagan officially declares the XXIII Olympic Games in the modern series to be open, no athletes from the U.S.S.R. will be there to compete.

Nor will the superb runners and swimmers from East Germany, one of the world’s top three athletic powers, judged by medals won in past Olympics. Nor any athletes from Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Laos, Mongolia or Viet Nam. Almost certainly, the Poles and Hungarians will stay home, though nothing is official yet; the Cubans are probable no-shows too. The Soviets obviously have carefully orchestrated the boycott, with one satellite after another falling into line, often a day apart. “We are going to be receiving a one-a-day bitter pill for some time,” predicts Peter Ueberroth, president of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee (L.A.O.O.C.). He also fears that the Kremlin leaders will try to extend the boycott “far beyond the normal Soviet bloc countries.”

Why? One reason undoubtedly is simple revenge, tit for tat. The U.S. led 36 nations in boycotting the 1980 Olympics, held in Moscow, as a protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. Though that pullout was widely dismissed in the West as a futile gesture, it hurt the Soviets’ pride more than many Americans ever realized. It also dashed their hopes of putting on a spectacular show that would advertise Soviet athletic and organizational achievements to a television audience around the world. The Kremlin’s leaders are widely believed to have been itching to pay Washington back in the same coin.

But there probably are other reasons, and one in particular with ramifications far beyond the world of athletics. The Soviet boycott is of a piece with the Kremlin’s walkout from the nuclear arms-control talks in Geneva, its rejection of a U.S. offer to conclude a new agreement banning chemical warfare, and its spurning of overtures even to establish new consulates in New York and Kiev. All dramatize Moscow’s frequent insistence that it sees no hope of concluding agreements with the Reagan Administration in any way, shape or form. By pulling out of the Olympics, says one U.S. State Department official, “the Soviets are saying they are so angry they won’t even play games with us any more.” In a conversation with TIME, a highly placed Soviet official made essentially the same point with remarkable candor. Said he: “Now the whole world will understand the Soviet government will do what it says it will. The first signal we sent was when we left the Geneva talks last fall. This is the second.”

That, to be sure, was not what Moscow said on the record. The official statement from the Soviet Olympic Committee, announced to the world on Tuesday morning by the news agency TASS, stressed the theme that Soviet athletes in Los Angeles would be going into a hostile environment and implied they might even be physically attacked. “Chauvinistic sentiments land anti-Soviet hysteria are being whipped up” in the U.S., said the “statement, “with direct connivance of the American authorities [who do] not intend to ensure the security of all sportsmen” (see box).

The statement was mostly nonsense. Soviet officials scouting Olympic preparations in Los Angeles last winter spurned at least one briefing offered by Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates on the extensive measures the city and Federal Government are in fact taking to safeguard athletes and spectators at the Games. But the announcement by TASS did give a clue to at least a subsidiary motive for the Soviet boycott. “Security,” in Krernlin terms, includes protection against embarrassment, and Moscow’s leaders were concerned that anti-Soviet demonstrations in Los Angeles and even possible defections of athletes would be shown on worldwide TV.

The U.S., of course, neither can nor should give any guarantees against demonstrations or defections. To answer any legitimate Soviet worries, however, Ueberroth and Juan Antonio Samaranch, the Spanish diplomat who heads the International Olympic Committee, flew from the Manhattan torch-carrying ceremony to Washington for a prearranged meeting with Ronald Reagan. It was already too late: even as they waited at New York City’s La Guardia Airport for their chartered jet, they got the first indication of an actual Soviet pullout, news that was confirmed when they reached Washington. Nonetheless, they received from the President a letter pledging strict U.S. adherence to Olympic ideals. Reagan states in his letter to Samaranch: “I have instructed agencies of the Federal Government to cooperate fully with Olympic and local officials to ensure the safety of all participants … The U.S. is totally committed to upholding the charter and fulfilling its responsibilities as the host nation of the Games.” Samaranch hopes to convey the letter to Moscow this week, if he can get a requested appointment with Soviet President Konstantin Chernenko.

Chances that the letter, or anything else, will change the Soviets’ minds before the June 2 deadline for an irrevocable decision seem about as minuscule as the chances of a 31-ft. long jump.* To the contrary, the rumor in both sports and diplomatic circles last week was that the Kremlin would try to organize a rival competition—a sort of Communist Olympics—some time this summer.

Competing games, of course, would further dim the symbolic flame of the official Olympics. That flame already is flickering low in the political winds that have been gusting for at least the past dozen years. The Los Angeles Games will be the fifth in a row marred by politics. The unhappy sequence began with riots outside and a black-power salute by U.S. athletes inside the 1968 Games in Mexico City and the massacre of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Games in Munich. It continued in 1976 with the boycott at the Olympiad in Montreal by black African nations that had unsuccessfully tried to get New Zealand expelled because one of its rugby teams had toured South Africa (which was barred from the Olympics after the 1960 Games because of its apartheid policies).

In Los Angeles, the announcement of the Soviet pullout from this summer’s Games hit with earthquake force. Many of the 1,200 employees of the L.A.O.O.C. heard the news on car radios as they pulled into parking spaces at the headquarters building, a former Hughes helicopter plant nicknamed “the hangar.” Inside, they were ordered not to discuss the situation with anyone and no outsiders were allowed in the building unless they had previous appointments. Mayor Thomas Bradley, speaking by phone from New York, where he too was attending the torch-carrying ceremony, pronounced himself “bitterly disappointed.” He and other officials repeatedly stressed the wan hope that the Soviets could be persuaded to reconsider; Bradley hinted that he might undertake a mission to Moscow. The dominant reaction, however, was that, Soviets or no Soviets, the Games would go on. Said L.A.O.O.C. Executive Vice President Harry Usher, I speaking to employees in the hangar late in the day: “These Games not only will happen, but will happen with taste and style and will be something that everyone will be proud of.”

Nonetheless, the absence from the Los Angeles Olympics of such Soviet world-record holders as Pole Vaulter Sergei Bubka, High Jumper Tamara Bykova and Swimmer Vladimir Salnikov, and of the East German athletes who have come close to dominating women’s track and field, will greatly diminish the luster of many events (see following story). True, the rivalry will be broader than in the 1980 Olympics, which drew athletes from only 81 nations to Moscow. Attendance at Los Angeles might equal, or even surpass, the high of 122 countries represented at the 1972 Games in Munich—though much depends on whether the black African nations boycott again (they are incensed because Zola Budd, a fleet middle-distance runner and native South African, may be allowed to compete as a British citizen). But, like the Soviet athletes who garnered the superficially staggering total of 197 gold, silver or bronze medals in the 1980 Summer Olympics, the winners in Los Angeles will be unable to boast that their feats were achieved against the toughest competition the world has to offer.

Will any Olympic athletes be able to make that boast again? Now that the precedent has been set, confirmed and intensified, worriers ask, can any host city be found that some group of nations might not want to boycott? Seoul, South Korea, already chosen by the International Olympic Committee (I.O.C.) as the site of the 1988 Summer Games, certainly would seem to offer a tempting target if East-West political tensions do not ease; it is the capital of a nation that the Soviet Union and many other Communist countries do not recognize. And will world-class athletes be willing to undergo the grueling four-year grind of training for the Olympics, if they face a constant threat of having their chance to compete taken away at the last moment?

Immediately after the Soviet announcement, Greece renewed a suggestion first made in 1980 to be the host of the Games every four years, as it did for more than 1,000 years that ended in A.D. 393. But Samaranch and other international Olympic officials cling to the idea of rotating the Games around the world. In any case, Greece, as a member of NATO, might not be considered a totally neutral site. Some athletes speculate about breaking up future Games by holding, say, track-and-field events in one country and swimming races in another.

Such prospects depress the legions of ardent sports buffs in the Soviet bloc quite as much as fans in neutral and Western nations, as the Kremlin leaders well realize. It is a measure of the political importance they attach to the Games, and the depth of their anger with the U.S., that they knowingly took a step sure to stir deep unhappiness among their allies and their own people, as well as citizens of other countries who ordinarily pay little attention to international politics. In the Soviet Union, which has no professional sports as they are known in the West, the whole athletic system is geared to winning Olympic medals. In East Germany, which had been touted to win as many as eight golds in women’s track-and-field events alone this summer, the production of world-class athletes by rigorous government-sponsored training programs is a source not just of pride but of something close to national identity.

The Soviet leaders did what they could do to cushion the blow. The controlled press in the U.S.S.R. for months has been running lurid depictions of Los Angeles as a sinkhole of smog, drugs and pornography, and has even been warning that Soviet Olympic athletes might be kidnaped there. The announcement of the actual pullout from the Games was carefully timed to coincide less with the arrival of the Olympic flame in New York than with the Soviet national holiday celebrating victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. And then it was heavily downplayed—a short story on the back page of Pravda, a brief mention close to the end of the main nightly newscast—in the apparent hope that it would be, at least momentarily, overlooked in a burst of patriotic fervor.

Nonetheless, Muscovites approached by Western journalists guardedly expressed regret and, at times, disbelief. “Come on, it’s a capitalist joke,” said one to a Western correspondent who phoned with the news.

Members of a Soviet gymnastics team touring Brazil spoke more candidly than their fellow athletes back home. Said Alexander Ditiatin, winner of a record eight medals at the 1980 Olympics: “I hope it’s not true. After all, we have been preparing ourselves for such a long time, and all that work can’t be thrown away.”

Soviet allies appeared to be caught by surprise. Well ahead of the June 2 deadline, Hungary had already officially accepted an invitation to the Olympics and presumably will have to reverse itself. Polish newspapers were printing detailed analyses of the prospects of Polish athletes in Los Angeles that had to be hastily discarded. An East German official in Switzerland explained his country’s participation in the boycott in the bluntest terms. Said he: “We are politically too dependent on the Soviet Union to envision any other decision.”

Communists who are on the outs with Moscow or who at least make a show of independence hastened to buck the Kremlin. Rumania was the only Warsaw Pact nation to pass word that its athletes would compete in the Olympics. China indicated it would participate too. The Chinese and Soviets currently are more annoyed with each other than usual. Moscow is miffed at the cordial reception Peking accorded Reagan on his recent tour. The Chinese are displeased because, at the very last minute, the Kremlin last week postponed a visit by Ivan Arkhipov, First Deputy Premier, who would have been the highest-ranking Soviet official received in Peking in 15 years. In the West, L ‘Unità , official organ of the Italian Communist Party, called the Soviet pullout “arbitrary.” More surprising, Georges Marchais, leader of the French Communist Party, which is usually meekly obedient to Moscow, termed the boycott a “grave error.” he U.S. also took some lumps in world opinion, not because anyone outside the Soviet bloc believed Moscow’s claim that athletes from the U.S.S.R. would be in danger from protesters in Los Angeles, but because some commentators blamed Washington for setting a bad example with its 1980 boycott. U.S. PAYS THE PRICE FOR POLITICIZING THE OLYMPICS proclaimed a banner headline in Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald. The Reagan Administration and its other American allies replied that the “threat” of anti-Soviet demonstrations in Los Angeles cited by Moscow hardly compared in gravity with the invasion of Afghanistan that had triggered the U.S. action. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who vigorously supported the 1980 boycott (but could not persuade the British Olympic Association to go along), icily told left-wing members of Parliament that the situation then was “totally different from the conditions under which the Olympics are being held in Los Angeles.”

This time around, the Soviets had no grievance even remotely approaching the magnitude of the Afghanistan invasion. As recently as late April, they seemed more ambivalent than distressed, alternating loud complaints about Olympic arrangements with expressions of hope that their athletes could attend. TASS went so far as to call an April 24 meeting of Soviet, American and international Olympic authorities in Lausanne, Switzerland, “a great step forward” in allaying Soviet concerns about visa requirements, customs inspections and the like. But TASS also noted that “problems” remained to be solved. Whether this was a calculated act to intensify suspense or a ploy to gain time while the decision was being debated in Moscow probably is known only to the Politburo. American officials, who admit they were surprised, incline to the latter view. Says one State Department official flatly: “We know the decision was taken only very recently.”

Whenever the decision was made, what motivated it? In Moscow and the West, there are about as many theories as there are Kremlinologists, and it is likely that many of them hold at least some truth. Even athletic prospects could have played a role. In both Washington and Moscow there is speculation that Soviet Olympic Committee Chairman Marat Gramov surveyed the Soviet competitors, concluded that despite their prowess, they might not win quite so many medals as both Soviet citizens and Western sportsmen were expecting, and notified his political superiors of a possible embarrassment.

If that consideration entered into the debate at all, however, it was probably given relatively little weight. The dominant reasons for the boycott are thought to fall under three main headings:

SECURITY. To Americans, the precautions surrounding the Olympics appear more than adequate. The police departments in Los Angeles and surrounding communities plan to assign 16,000 officers to watch the athletes and spectators; in addition, 8,000 unarmed college students will be deputized to stand guard and summon the real police to any trouble spot. The FBI during the Olympics will increase its force of agents in the Los Angeles area from the usual 400 to 700. To the $100 million that the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee proposes to spend on security, Congress has authorized the Defense Department to add $50 million. The Pentagon will lend more than 100 helicopters and crews to local police forces to keep watch over the Games, and the L.A.O.O.C. will erect fences and sentry posts around the Olympic Villages where athletes will live. For further security Soviet Olympic officials and coaches would have slept on a ship anchored off Long Beach. The first major assignment of the Pentagon’s newly organized hostage rescue team, now training at Quantico, Va., will be to station itself in Orange County during the Olympics, ready to swing into action alongside the Los Angeles Police Department’s crack SWAT (special weapons and tactics) team if terrorists try anything at the Games.

But Soviet ideas of what constitutes “security,” as measured by the steps they took at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, are far more grandiose. Recalls TIME Correspondent B.J. Phillips, who covered the Moscow Games: “You could not find a dissident, a drunk or a child under 18 on the streets of Moscow. All had been swept up for the greater image of Mother Russia. A phalanx of Soviet army soldiers, sitting so close that their shoulders brushed, filled the first row of seats at every Olympic event. A militiaman in gray uniform stood in the middle of every intersection in Moscow, even those miles from Olympic sites. That was the unobtrusive part of the security arrangements. Despite a thorough search in customs, despite the fact that accredited Olympic journalists are due many of the same waivers as athletes under I.O.C. rules, our luggage was searched before we could even get to the front desk to register in the press hotel. The guards squeezed toothpaste tubes, dismantled cameras, unfolded clothes. And they would not let you leave the hotel—forget getting back in—unless you were carrying your credentials. After the ballet one night, I decided to see how far I could walk without someone materializing to stop me for inspection. My record was three-quarters of a block.”

The Soviet leaders, of course, have sent their athletes to compete at Olympiads in Munich, Montreal and other Western cities where no such police-state controls were in effect. Still, most experts agree that in the U.S. they feared being humiliated by demonstrations and defections. F. Don Miller, executive director of the U.S. Olympic Committee, speculates: “What they really want is a promise to hand over defectors.” That concern might seem paranoiac: Olympic athletes are young, intensely patriotic and highly privileged members of Soviet society—and they know that a defecting swimmer, say, could hardly earn as much cash in the West as a ballet dancer. No Soviet athlete has defected yet at an Olympiad. But Western experts note that if there were any defections, the KGB would take the rap. It would not be in a position to control the situation. Thus the KGB had a strong motive to argue against participation in the Los Angeles Olympics.

REVENGE. To many in the U.S., the boycott of the 1980 Olympics seemed a flat failure. The Soviets stayed in Afghanistan and the Games went on. Though such major nations as Canada, Japan and West Germany stayed away at Washington’s urging, athletes from allied countries like Britain, France and Italy competed. The U.S. Olympic Committee’s list of sympathizers that joined the boycott is studded with names like Bermuda and Fiji, scarcely powers in international sports.

Moscow, by common consent of diplomats and journalists who were there—and Soviet officials speaking frankly—saw it very differently. The Olympiad was by far the biggest and most prestigious worldwide gathering to which the Soviet regime had ever played host. It was to symbolize the U.S.S.R.’s emergence as a full-fledged, legitimate member of the world community of nations and to show off the glories of the new Soviet society. But the luster of the competition was dimmed, global TV audiences and headlines in the world press disappointingly small, visitors to Moscow fewer than expected.

The urge to give the Americans a black eye in return, Western experts agree, might not have prevailed had dealings with the U.S. generally improved. But with superpower relations as frosty as, they are now, why not? Ueberroth notes that the Soviets seemed cooperative in discussing plans for the Los Angeles Games until the death of President Yuri Andropov in February, but after Konstantin Chernenko’s accession to power, they started raising one complaint after another. Chernenko was a longtime crony of Leonid Brezhnev’s, the Kremlin boss from 1964 until his death in 1982. And Brezhnev is widely believed to have felt personally affronted by the 1980 Olympic boycott.

Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko has a more recent reason for personal bitterness toward the U.S. As Moscow’s chief international spokesman, he took the brunt of worldwide opprobrium after the Soviet Union shot down a Korean airliner late last summer; when he was due in New York for a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, local politicians refused to let him land at the area’s commercial airports and Washington told him he would have to fly into a military field. Deeply offended, Gromyko called off the trip. Washington analysts believe he raised his increasingly influential voice in favor of a stick-it-to-the-Americans line during Politburo debates over the Olympics.

POLITICS. This, everyone agrees, is the fundamental reason for the pullout. The Soviet leaders, beset by economic troubles at home, unable to prevent the deployment of U.S. nuclear missiles in Western Europe and still burning over Reagan’s characterization of them as “the focus of evil in the modern world,” are in an angry and frustrated mood. They will do nothing even passively that might conceivably boost Reagan’s standing, but on the contrary will seize every opportunity to embarrass him in an election year.

Reagan so far has reacted calmly. When White House Chief of Staff James Baker whispered the news of the Soviet pullout to the President as he sat through a luncheon commemorating the 100th birthday of Harry Truman, Reagan merely frowned and murmured, “Oh, no.” He said nothing in public for 24 hours, and then took a calculated tone of sorrow rather than anger. Said the President: “It ought to be remembered by all [that] the Games more than 2,000 years ago started as a means of bringing peace between the Greek city-states. And in those days, even if a war was going on, they called off the war in order to hold the Games. I wish we were still as civilized.”

Reagan’s aides see nothing the White House can or should legitimately do to cajole the Soviets into participating in the Olympics, and no political danger for the President if Moscow holds to its determination to stay out. There will, perhaps, be some small loss of prestige; Reagan will not get quite the glory out of opening the Games that he would have with the Soviets and their satellites on hand. But there is little way the Democrats could exploit an Olympics issue even if they wanted to, which most do not. Walter Mondale, the most likely Democratic nominee, is about the last person in the country other than Jimmy Carter who can complain about a boycott of the Olympics, since he was Vice President when Carter organized the one the U.S. led in 1980.

The Administration similarly doubts that the Soviet boycott seriously worsens the international climate. Its view is that the Kremlin leaders have been in a state of transition since Brezhnev’s health began failing five years ago. Says one Administration adviser: “They have been poorly organized to make decisions involving important changes, so they just stick to the familiar,” which primarily means raging at the U.S. Says another Reagan aide: “If they want to show pique, this [boycotting the Olympics] isn’t a very dangerous way to do it.” Reaganauts accept the idea that Moscow is signaling to the world a refusal to deal with the President. “That probably won’t change until after the election,” says one White House staffer. “Then they will have to reassess.”

Maybe. But such comments are uncomfortably reminiscent of Administration predictions that the Soviets would never walk out of arms-control talks last fall, and once they had, that they would return to the bargaining table no later than March. The Administration’s admitted surprise at the Soviet Olympic pullout proves once again that it is scarcely adept at gauging the thoughts and intentions of the men in the Kremlin—not that the rest of the world in this case did any better. And if the issue is hardly comparable in importance to nuclear arms negotiations, the boycott demonstrates a Soviet wish to dramatize superpower tensions that cannot comfort anyone, sports buff or not.

— By George J. Church. Reported Reported by Erik Amfitheatrof/Moscow, Laurence I. Barrett/Washington and Steven Holmes/Los Angeles, with other bureaus

* The world record, set by Bob Beamon of the U.S. in the thin air of Mexico City at the 1968 Olympics, is 29 ft. 2½ in

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