Why US Olympic heads didn't push Carter to wire
Colorado Springs, Colo. — It was far closer to the "agony of defeat" than to the "thrill of victory" for delegates of the US Olympic Committee (USOC) who voted April 12 to support President Carter's proposed boycott of the Moscow summer games.
The delegates -- predominantly coaches, ex-athletes, and patron of Olympic sports -- found themselves thrust into the unfamiliar world of real politics where the distinction between victory and defeat are rarely as clear as on the playing field.
The strain was evident Saturday morning as the House of Delegates of the USOC gathered for their moment of truth -- an unprecendented vote that came that afternoon. As a recording of the national anthem blared, the delegates sang along with a pronounced lack of feeling, their expressions wooden and preoccupied.
Within a few hours these 275 Americans would be forced to weigh the desires and First Amendment rights of the athletes they represent, as well as the fine print in the USOC charter, against national security and a courageous, but chiefly symbolic, measure opposing Soviet aggressiion in Afghanistan.
Tthe agony of decision was apparent in the remarks of USOC president robert Kane as he announced the final results. "I am here to represent the athletes. I have spent most of my adult life coaching or administering college athletics. I feel deeply for the individuals who have worked so hard and, because of this, will never have a chance to compete in the olympics."
Still, by an almost 2-to-1 margin, the delegates cast their votes in favor of a boycott. Patriotism and the considerable pressure applied by the White House carried the day. But few, if any, voted without major reservations. Besides dashing the hopes of US athletes, this reluctance stemmed from concern over the effect that such a step will have on the Olympic movement.
The consequences of voting to send a team to Moscow were clearly negative. In the first quarter of this year USOC fund raising was $1.2 million under its goal of $4.2 million, executive director F. Don Miller reported. White house lobbying already had cost the committee at least one major corporate donation, and it was obvious that public disapproval and President Carter's effort to discourage donations would intensify if the committee members defied him.
Furthermore, the administration had made it clear that other matters, such as the tax-exempt status of Olympic organizations, would be scrutinized in such an eventuality.
"We thought we were pretty independent, but we found out just how much pressure the president can bring to bear," says one USOC staff member, adding, "There is quite a bit of resentment as a result."
The probable repercussions of a US boycott are more difficult to predict. Some fear that it could lead to an end of the global character of the Olympic Games. In the last two weeks, the Soviet Olympic Commission has implied that if the US boycott the games this summer the USSR may stay away from the 1984 games in Los Angeles.
"There is no question but this is a serious blow to the Olympic movement," commented Robert Helmick, head of the Amateur Athletic Union. He believes it possible that the ultimate effect could be separate Western and Eastern Competitions after 1984.
Offsetting these new concerns, at least in part, were White House and congressional promises of increased financial support for amateur athletics if the USOC agreed to the boycott. Vice-President Walter Mondale, addressing the delegates Saturday morning, reiterated these inducements: "We recognize the tremendous sacrifice we are asking of sports officials. But, on behalf of the President of the united States, I assure you that our nation will do everything within its power to ensure the success of the Los Angeles games; to help the Olympic Committee restore its finances; to provide even greater assistance to the development of amateur sport. . . ." In particular, $16 million that was authorized under the National Sports Act but never appropriated will be turned over to the USOC, it now appears.
Earlier, Mr. Mondale denied reports that the White House had bought the support of certain of the Olympic governing bodies with promises of financial support. And, while Mr. Kane admitted that there had been some discussion of financial matters, he maintained that they were kept "low-keyed" because "we didn't want the decision to be made on this basis."
The USOC president and several other delegates agreed that the boycott decision was made because presidential counsel Lloyd Cutler and other administration jawboner's had succeeded in convincing them that the boycott was a matter national security.
The administration view on this matter was stated by Vice-President Mondale when he claimed that "What it at stake is no less than the future security of the civilized world."
To bolster this position, Mr. Mondale drew an analogy between the current situation and that of the 1936 Berlin Games.Although not stated directly, his comments implied that if the free world had boycotted the Berlin games, it would have changed the course of events leading to World War II. Similarly, he suggested that a US boycott now will decrease the likehood of war with the Soviet Union.
Mr. cutler expanded on this during questioning. After the President, and Congress, and the majority of the American people had determined a boycott was necessary, he maintained, a contrary decision on the part of the USOC would be a signal to the Soviets that the US lacked the resolve and the unity to oppose their aggession.
This argument failed to convince most of the athletes and a substantial minority of the delegates. The view of Kevin McCarey, a marathon runner, seemed typical. He thought President Carter's effort to pressure the USOC into a boycott were a matter of partisan politics. After making a "bad decision to boycott, the political consequences of backing down were simply too great for him to bear," the runner said.
When informed that the International Olympic Charter states that "national Olympic committees must be autonomous and must resist all pressures of any kind whatsoever, whether of a political, religious, or economic nature . . ." and that the USOC constitution itself maintains "no member of the USOC may deny of threaten to deny any amateur athlete the opportunity to compete in the Olympic Games," Mr. Carter decided to use national security as his rationale to force the commitee to violate these rules, the marathoner added.
"Why did President Carter force the Olympic Committee to vote against their own constitution? Why didn't he let them vote according to our wishes, declare a national emergency, and keep us from going himself?" Mr. McCarey asked.
Besides the adverse political consequences of the course the athlete proposes , Harry K. Neir, a lawyer representing the US women's volleyball team, argued that the President could not do this because he does not the power. The Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional past restrictions that kept Americans from traveling to Cuba, he pointed out. So any attempt to keep athletes away from Moscow would be a violation of their first amendment rights, Mr. Neir maintained.
But, because current International Olympic Committee rules do not allow participation by individuals, the current vote means that Mr. Carter does not have to face these civil liberties questions. The athletes can challenge the USOC decision as unlawful by its own constitution, but the arbitration procedures involved are too lengthy to reverse the vote by the May deadline.
The possibility of an alternative competition raised by the White House was resoundingly rejected by both the delegates and the athletes. The feeling was that nothing could take the place of the Olympic competition and the logistics problems were so great as to make alternative games impossible.
"We've had plenty of practice; we know how to handle defeat," commented Andy Toro, a kayaker.
From their reactions, however, it was obvious that the athletes found this new form of defeat more trying than those they are accustomed to.