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Olympics: The Agony off Default

9 minute read
Tom Callahan

For the athletes, the competition is the thing

Spectators might say, “It’s only a game,” and they should say it, 20 times a day. But can a building contractor ever say, “It’s only a house”? To the world’s athletes, the Olympics are not merely sport, and their reactions to the Soviet withdrawal ranged from a sigh to a bolt of anger. “The hell with them,” said Al Oerter, a U.S. discus thrower with four Olympiads and four gold medals under his broad belt. Willie Banks, the triple jumper, called the Olympics “the biggest political football in the history of man,” and Marathoner Alberto Salazar despaired, “It’s going to be the death blow for the Games. It has happened too many years.”

While political interruptions at the Olympics trace at least to Hitler and probably to Zeus, Munich in 1972 is where innocence died, along with eleven others. “If we stop the Games every time there is disorder in the world,” said Avery Brundage, the Olympic politician, “there would never be Games.” When he decreed that terrorists should not be allowed to spoil the fun, and let the Games resume, public opinion was divided. But the athletes were agreed: by all means, play on. Physically, emotionally and materially, they had sacrificed too much.

For then and always, their position was expressed most simply by Olga Connolly, a discus thrower who carried the U.S. flag in Munich’s opening procession. And she could speak from both sides of the curtain. As a member of the Czechoslovak team in 1956, Olga Fikotova fell for American Hammer Thrower Harold Connolly, and against those two, red tape never had a chance. “On the day my mother died,” she said that bleak afternoon in Bavaria, “I still had to do my housework.” Training is that basic to them.

When he heard the thunder last week, U.S. Swimmer Jesse Vassallo felt a sympathetic shudder. “The first thing that came to mind was Vladimir Salnikov,” he said, referring to the dashing Soviet champion of two Olympic events. “I swam with that guy, trained with him. I know how hard he had to work to maintain what he had. My God, he must feel so empty.” Salnikov, the swimmer. Dmitri Belozerchev, the gymnast. Sergei Bubka, the pole vaulter. Anatoli Pisa-renko, the weight lifter. These are the glamorous losses. The marvelous women swimmers from East Germany, including Birgit Meineke and Kristin Otto. Czechoslovakia’s middle-distance wonder Jarmila Kratochvilova. No Zamira Zaitseva now to tumble in the wake of Mary Decker. Zaitseva is a Soviet, but the other East bloc countries constitute the grievous loss to track and field. Women’s track is becoming something of another East German preserve.

While a fairly respectable men’s track meet can be imagined without the absentees, the spectators may not know it. American Carl Lewis hoped to be the most regal figure of the most handsome Games, to sweep the Olympics like Jesse Owens. If the heart has left the Games, how will Lewis summon his best? “In my events [100 and 200 meters, the long jump, the relay] the Soviets are not a factor,” he said helplessly, “but I’m not sure the public realizes it. They might think, ‘Oh, he won, but the Soviets weren’t there.’ They may think it means less.” Even his long-jumping sister, Carol, said, “If they don’t come to the Games, I don’t consider it the real Olympics. As far as I’m concerned, last year’s world championships were the real Olympics. This summer is now just another big meet.”

In swimming, the men will especially miss the Soviets, the women the East Germans. Just the thought of a gymnastics meet without any new Olga Korbuts is forlorn. While the Chinese may argue slightly, the tumbling men from the U.S.S.R. are dominant, and the girl-women supreme. Boxing’s forecast depends on what the Cubans will do. For some reason, the spirit of boxers is seldom blunted. They generally come from the worst circumstances with the brightest outlooks. “The Russians just made it easier for me to get my gold,” said Paul Gonzales, 20, a flyweight from a Los Angeles barrio. “They can be very tough people to fight—they’re awkward and keep coming at you.” Should Cuba demur as well, Gonzales will be consolable. Also elegant Cuban Heavyweight Teofileo Stevenson, 33, would not be coming after his fourth consecutive gold medal.

Although the Soviet men’s basketball team is rated behind the Americans and the Italians, U.S. spectators always savor a Russian match above all. In women’s basketball, without the U.S.S.R. around, the Americans become the favorites. Archery, cycling, fencing, judo, shooting, soccer, team handball, volleyball, water polo, weight lifting, wrestling and the pentathlon are markedly affected; diving, dressage, synchronized swimming, field hockey and yachting appear unspoiled.

Comments from the lost athletes were sparse. The heartbreak of Kratochvilova, heroine of last summer’s Helsinki championships, could be imagined. At 32, this seemed her last golden chance. If no one else would speak, the Poles raised their voices. “Idon’t know what is the situation with the Soviets,” said Pentathlon Champion Janusz Peciak, 36, who expected to crown his career in Los Angeles. “I’ve been many times in the U.S. and there was never any problem with security.” Pole Vaulter Wladyslaw Kozakiewicz agreed: “Nobody thinks it will be a plus forthe socialist countries not to go. For me, it was the last opportunity in my life. Each of us has lost heart. There is enormous sorrow.” Triple Jumper Zdzislaw Hoffman moaned, “It is like a knife in the back.”

Britain’s strong hope for a medal, Swimmer Adrian Moorhouse, said the withdrawals “touched me personally.” His two keenest rivals in the breaststroke are Soviets. “Not for one moment do I feel any relief that the Russians might not be racing against me,” Moorhouse, 19, said. “It must be heartbreaking to give up so much time, to sweat away in training and then be ordered not to compete just for political reasons.”

This is a pang familiar to U.S. athletes, those without a place to play in 1980, particularly the ones unable to hold on another four years. “I was mad. I was bitter,” remembered Chicago Runner Rosalyn Bryant, 28, whose best chance at a 400-meter medal may have evaporated with the Carter boycott. “But what can you do? The President is making the decision; he’s somebody you never see. So you take it out on your family, on people you’re around all of the time.” Only 14 then, Gymnast Julianne McNamara could react to that boycott with youthful resilience, tell herself, “I’m an Olympian, and I’ll always be,” and sweat away another four years.

In some of the least glamorous sports, where many of the most dedicated athletes are found, the Communist bloc teams are an almost necessary standard. “The Russians have to be there,” said the U.S. freestyle wrestling coach, Dan Gable. “If not, my wife can do the coaching.” “This is the best judo team America ever had,” said Eddie Liddie, a 126-pounder. “We’ve been working four long years, and we’re ready to surprise some people, ready to win some medals. Now, when we do good, people will say that the Russians didn’t come, the East Germans didn’t come, they weren’t the real Olympics.”

On a recent tour, the judo team encountered the Soviets and a premonition. “Once you’re together alone,” Liddie said, “politics is out the door, and you trade pins and talk. We’d say, ‘Are you going to L.A.?’ and they’d say, ‘Well, we’re not sure.’ Then one of the Cubans told one of our guys who spoke Spanish that Russia might have something [alternate games] in Bulgaria.”

U.S. athletes have never been particularly enthusiastic Red-baiters. Innuendoes do fly like javelins over female village smithies who toss anvils for totalitarian states. In 1976, the last Summer Games attended by Americans, the U.S. women swimmers could have taken their thumping by East Germany more gracefully. Some muttered that the Germans’ particular star, Kornelia Ender, resembled a man, though she did not look like a man to men, certainly not to Roland Mathes, who married her. He was the G.D.R.’s top male swimmer, and a friendship between Mathes and John Naber, the best American, was evident. “We were on a similar quest,” Naber said. “The thing that makes friends is a shared experience. The best of that is a mutual respect.”

Those who define themselves by a specific adversary have always acknowledged the bond. A faded photograph from 1962: at a Soviet-American track-and-field championship in Palo Alto, Calif., Siberian High Jumper Valeriy Brumel sprang past Bostonian John Thomas for his world record of 7 ft. 5 in. The American crowd cheered without reservation. Thomas hugged and pounded Brumel. On impulse, Valeriy and Tennessee Long Jumper Ralph Boston took a lap around the stadium to unreserved applause. Only the audience has changed.

Neither side of the sporting world is respected by the other any more, or taken at its word. Many Westerners figure the Soviets fear Olympic drug testing and mass defections, or perhaps just decline to finish second again (as they did in Sarajevo last winter) to the G.D.R. Athletes are joining in the worn discussion of a permanent site in Greece, neglecting to consider who pays for pools and stadiums in use two weeks every four years. “Treat it like a sanctuary, as they did in Olympia,” Diver Greg Louganis urges. “It was the Greek’s form of worship. Why not bring it back as that?” But John Naber disagrees: “The Games are a social and cultural exchange, a big party. You don’t want the party to be held in the same home every time.”

As usual, the competitors are rallying. “I wasn’t going to the Olympics just to beat the Russians,” said U.S. Gymnast Mary Lou Retton. “I was going because it has always been my dream.” A good and brave line is managed by Lorraine Moller, the marathoner from New Zealand, who reasons, “They will be the only Olympics I might ever “know. Would you cancel your birthday party because a few relatives won’t show?” American Gymnast Mitch Gaylord believes, “They will still be the Olympic Games. There’s nothing bigger than that.” As Naber says, “There are still five rings and gods on clouds throwing lightning bolts.” When Alberto Salazar and others ask, “Will children grow up dreaming of the Olympics any more?” Naber answers, “I’m afraid they will.”

— ByTom Callahan. Reported by Melissa Ludtke/Los Angeles and John Moody/Bonn, with other bureaus

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