Washington — Like Theodosius of Rome at the end of the fourth century AD, Jimmy Carter proposes to intervene in the Olympic Games. Official sentiment appears to e growing toward taking next summer's games away from Moscow as a "sanction" in the Afghanistan crisis.
Students of Soviet behavior argue that the games have come to have extraordinary symbolic meaning for the self-conscious Russians as evidence of their acceptance, or legitimacy, by the rest of the world.
But opposition to moving the international games also is strong here, and the balance is wavering.
Not, perhaps, since Coroebas won the victor's chaplet of wild olive in the foot race in 776 BC has sports interest been so involved in politics. There is also the modern commerical side juxtaposed with communism: a little matter of perhaps $120 million for the National Broadcasting Company to broadcast the games [NBC has an insurance policy with Lloyds of London which would protect 90 percent of its investment if the Olympics fall through], and such items as a $1. 3 million or so in a contract by Coca Cola with Moscow to sell 19 million soft drinks this summer.
Events in the matter follow:
President Carter said from the White House Jan. 4 that the United States "would prefer not to withdraw" from the Olympic Games, but that Moscow must understand world abhorrence.
Mr. Carter, Vice-President Walter Mondale, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, and others added their warnings.
Prime Minister Joe Clark of Canada, now in an election contest at home, proposed that the games might be moved to Montreal. Montreal was site of the 1976 Summer Olympics.
Against this, sports spokesman Michael T. Harrington, who directed the President's Commission Olympic Sprots in 1975-77, urged keeping politics out of sports. "If every country applied its own political principles to political goals unrelated to the Olympics, international sport would be destroyed."
On the other side, veteran sports commentator Red Smith of the New York Times apparently had a column killed last week by that journal in a disagreement over the tone of his crusade to move the Olympics from Moscow.
(Lord Kilanin, president of the International Olympic Committee, said in Dublin Jan. 13 there was no question of switching the games from Moscow and that it would be "physically impossible" to move them anywhere else.)
For many, the Olympics issue is deeply serious, affecting the intangibles of status and foreign policy of the Soviet heirarchy in Moscow.
Some students argue that communists still have a profound inferiority complex as they move from a position of revolutionary usurpers, as first seen by the West, to recognition of a world stature commensurate with their military and industrial power. Russians have never felt they quite attained this, according to this theory. They have still been outsiders. But the Moscow Olympics, if they come off, it is argued, will be like the wild olive chaplet crowning the brow of a contestant, of extraordinary symbolic significance not merely abroad but especially at home.
Nazis used propagandistic showmanship in the Olympics in Berlin in 1936, it is recalled, which were held a few months after Hitler occupied the Rhineland.
Olympics were canceled in 1916 for World War I, and omitted again for 1940 and 1944. In the distant past, the games were part of religious rites dedicated to gods on snow-clad Mt. Olympus to substitute peace for war and a truce during the festivities. The famous historian Timaeus of Sicily (356- 260 BC) used the list of victors kept in the gymnasium of Olympia to check on chronology.
Athens faded, Rome rose, and the Olympic Games were too professional (or commercialized) for Emperor Theodosius, who abolished them. After a gap of a millenium or two, they were revived in 1896.
Moscow has reacted in two ways -- first lightly, then angrily. "Blackmail," says a writer this week in Izvestia.
Saudi Arabia says it will drop out and urges other Muslim nations to do likewise.
Former US Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger says the Olympics should go back to the Greeks, where they come from, and be organized permanently from Athens. The Olympics seem made for boycotts. Twenty- nine countries walked out of the Montreal games on a racial dispute because New Zealand played Rugby with South Africa.
History repeats itself. They tried to substitute sports for politics in 776 BC; they still haven't done it.